BEIJING – A recent statement in Beijing by a former chief Cabinet secretary has emerged as a focal issue that could greatly affect tensions between Japan and China over the contested ownership of the Senkaku Islands.
During his meeting in early June with Liu Yunshan, the fifth-ranked member of the Chinese Communist Party and a member of its Political Bureau Standing Committee, Hiromu Nokana, 88, said Japanese and Chinese leaders had agreed to shelve the territorial dispute when they normalized diplomatic relations in September 1972.
On June 4, the day after Nonaka’s meeting with Liu, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida denied there had been any bilateral agreement to shelve the thorny dispute, saying “there is no such fact in our country’s diplomatic records” regarding the Japanese-administered but China-claimed Senkakus.
Yet a senior official of the Chinese government said it has a diplomatic document testifying to such an accord between Tokyo and Beijing.
The statement by Nonaka was based on what Kakuei Tanaka, prime minister at the time of the alleged agreement, said in a report to members of his faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after diplomatic ties were normalized. Nonaka was a member of Tanaka’s intraparty group.
According to Nonaka, who served as chief Cabinet secretary in the late 1990s, Tanaka told them that as negotiations on the normalization of diplomatic relations entered the final stretch, he had approached Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and informed him he would like to discuss “that issue,” referring to the Senkakus.
The ownership of the uninhabited islet cluster, which China calls Diaoyu, started to become a flash point in Sino-Japanese relations after China laid claim to them in 1971. Japan had taken control of the islets in 1895.
Zhou, who wanted to normalize diplomatic ties between Japan and China as an urgent priority, replied that the meeting between the Japanese and Chinese leaders would go nowhere if they took up the Senkakus issue because the discussions would drag on interminably, Nonaka quoted Tanaka as saying.
Masayoshi Ohira, who also attended the meeting as foreign minister, then suggested that Tanaka had made the proposal just so he could say the territorial issue had been discussed if he was asked about it by right-wing activists upon his return home.
Eventually, Tanaka and Zhou agreed that the two sides should put the matter on the back burner to “keep the waves gentle” until they could start talks to settle the islets’ ownership at some future point.
Nonaka, who has promoted friendship between Japan and China, revealed the two leaders’ exchange at a news conference in Beijing after his meeting with Liu. “I would like to clarify what happened at that time as a surviving witness who heard about the situation,” Nonaka said.
He said he feels that shelving the issue, as envisioned by Zhou and his reform-minded successor, Deng Xiaoping, was the only way to avoid a bilateral confrontation over the Senkakus.
As Tokyo continues to officially maintain that there is no territorial dispute over the Senkakus, any recognition of an agreement with Beijing to shelve the problem could be seen as an admission of the problem.
On June 4, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga therefore assured reporters that “there are no facts that (Japan) agreed with China to shelve the issue.” The following day, Suga said he found it “very strange” that Nonaka had gone public about the issue “without offering any solid evidence.”
Tokyo’s stance on the Senkakus is based on diplomatic documents about the normalization of relations with China that have been released to the public. According to these documents, Tanaka told Zhou: “What do you think of the Senkaku Islands? Lots of people come to me and say various things (about the islets).”
“It isn’t good to discuss this now,” Zhou replied, adding the Senkakus “became a problem because oil is (contained)” in the surrounding seabed. “Neither Taiwan nor the United States would pay attention without (the presence of) oil” reserves, Zhou said.
The documents show no further discussions on the issue.
Following Japan’s purchase of three of the five largest islets in the Senkaku chain last September, the Oct. 12 edition of the Chinese People’s Daily ran a story on what it called a “core part” not cited in Japan’s diplomatic documents.
The Communist Party organ quoted Tanaka as saying after the talks on oil reserves: “All right, we don’t need to discuss any more now. Let’s do it again.”
“Let’s do it again,” Zhou reportedly responded. “Before other issues, this time we will resolve big and basic problems that can be resolved, such as the normalization of bilateral relations, which is the most pressing problem for us.”
This exchange between Tanaka and Zhou, which has been interpreted in some quarters as their agreement to shelve the problem and leave it for future generations to resolve, is based on a memoir by Zhang Xiangshan, an adviser to the Chinese Foreign Ministry at that time who was involved in the talks to normalize ties.
A number of Chinese government officials say Zhang’s records are held in diplomatic documents, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s archives office has yet to disclose copies of the original documents.
These documents “may be considered to have been doctored” unless the originals are made public, a Japanese government official said.