China, Japan scholars seek way out of Senkakus imbroglio

AFP-JIJI

As fears grow over the simmering Senkakus dispute, scholars from China and Japan are hoping to lower the temperature with expansive talks in Washington to search for common ground.

Two U.S.-based scholars, one Japanese and the other Chinese, brought together experts — four from China, three from Japan — on Sunday to sound out views on the Japan-held Senkaku Islands, claimed as Diaoyu by Beijing.

The academics acknowledged that Tokyo and Beijing have major differences over the East China Sea islet cluster but they saw one fundamental point in common: neither side wanted the conflict to escalate into armed conflict.

Coconvener Zheng Wang found a “huge perception gap” between the two sides and said rising nationalism in Asia’s two largest economies is making it difficult for their leaders to take any action that could be seen as weak.

“Each side sees themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor — ‘they take aggressive behavior to change the status quo, and we are peace loving (people),’ ” said Wang, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

China and Japan both claim the potentially energy-rich islets, with each side offering historical arguments. Washington takes no ultimate position but considers Tokyo to hold effective control.

Tensions have soared between U.S.-allied Japan and a rising China ever since Tokyo effectively nationalized the entire Senkakus chain in September, with anti-Japanese protesters holding rare street demonstrations.

The Washington talks did not involve government envoys but several participants made suggestions in a personal capacity.

Tatsushi Arai, a conflict resolution expert at George Mason University who convened the session with Wang, said his proposal amounted to “agree to disagree, through peaceful means.”

Arai laid out three options, including Japan affirming its sovereignty but acknowledging China’s position. Tokyo insists the islets are not disputed territory. Conversely, Beijing could stand by its claims but acknowledge Tokyo’s position, or the two sides could both acknowledge differences. The two countries could afterward work on a code of conduct for the surrounding waters.

With any of these options, “the Japanese side doesn’t have to compromise on the territorial claim and the Chinese side does not have to; however, they agree to disagree,” Arai said.

Nabuo Fukuda, an Asahi Shimbun journalist and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson center, said the two nations could come together to begin new test-drilling for oil in the area of the islands. If the two sides discover oil, they could discuss joint exploitation, he said.

“If oil is not found, maybe this issue won’t disappear but the experience of working together and routinely will be helpful for future situations,” Fukuda said.

Robert Hathaway, director of the Woodrow Wilson center’s Asia program, said the territorial row remains complex but that all of the scholars agreed it would be “heightened folly” to let the situation spin out of control.