Somber marking of Japan-China ties

On Sept. 29, Japan and China marked the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. Unfortunately, bilateral ties are in a sorry state, with mutual distrust the deepest since ties were normalized due to a dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Leaders of both countries should go back to the spirit and wisdom that their predecessors demonstrated when they normalized diplomatic relations in 1972, and when they signed a peace treaty eight years later, and verbally agreed to shelve the Senkaku Islands sovereignty issue.

Forty years ago, then Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai signed the joint Japan-China statement in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In it, Japan made clear “its responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war and deeply reproached itself,” and both countries agreed that “the normalization of relations and development of good-neighborly and friendly relations between the two countries are in the interests of the two peoples and will contribute to the relaxation of tension in Asia and peace in the world.”

During the welcome dinner for Tanaka, he agreed to Zhou’s call for “sinking the differences (between the two countries) for the sake of the common good.” Although the Senkaku Islands issue was taken up, both leaders did not delve deeply into it and agreed to postpone discussions on it.

In August 1978, Japan and China signed a peace and friendship treaty, in which both countries agreed to “develop relations of perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.”

In October that year, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told a news conference in Tokyo that the two countries agreed to shelve the Senkaku Islands issue during the talks for the treaty. Both Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese President Hu Jintao should realize that their predecessors shelved the issue for the sake of the much greater goal of putting bilateral relations on an even keel. Since then, the governments and people of both countries have greatly benefited from strong bilateral ties.

Still, Japan must realize that it has committed diplomatic mistakes in addressing this issue and make efforts to regain China’s trust. Following a Chinese trawler’s collision with Japan Coast Guard patrol ships near the Senkakus in September 2010, then Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said that no agreement on shelving the Senkaku issue existed. Japan failed to fully explain to China that the government purchase of three of the five Senkaku islets was designed to forestall Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s apparent desire to destabilize Japan-China ties with his plan to buy the three islets and that the purchase only changes ownership status domestically.

Furthermore, Mr. Noda disclosed the plan to “nationalize” the three islands on July 7, the 75th anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which marked the start of the second Sino-Japanese War. Then in early September, a day after Mr. Hu asked Mr. Noda “not to make a wrong decision” during a meeting in Vladivostok, Japan officially announced the nationalization, causing Mr. Hu to lose face.

On the other hand, China should realize that retaliatory actions against Japan will only damage its international image. With the tacit approval of the Chinese government last month, anti-Japan demonstrations took place in many cities across China. A mob mentality set in at some demonstrations and Japanese businesses and even Japanese cars driven by locals were attacked. Meanwhile, sales of Japan-related books were banned. China also sent surveillance ships to waters near the Senkakus and has strengthened the inspection of Japanese products in customs, leading to delays.

Japanese should not be provoked by these events. Any anti-China actions taken in Japan would only serve to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment among Chinese. Chinese leaders and officials on their part should refrain from fanning nationalism among Chinese people and immediately halt any anti-Japanese activities.

As for Japan’s nationalization of the three islets, China appears to think that the Japanese government intentionally remained silent during the runup to Mr. Ishihara’s announcement of his plan to buy the islets so that it could eventually step in and nationalize them. But the biggest reason for China’s strong reaction to the nationalization is its perception that Japan’s purchase of the islands runs counter to the agreement to shelve the Senkaku issue.

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly last week, Mr. Noda called for strengthening the rule of law to resolve conflicts peacefully, in an oblique reference to the Senkaku dispute and the Japan-South Korea dispute over the Takeshima Islets in the Sea of Japan. He said, “Any attempt to realize a country’s ideology or claim by unilateral use of force or threat is inconsistent with the fundamental spirit of the U.N. Charter … (and is) absolutely unacceptable,” apparently referring to China’s reaction to the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told the same assembly that Japan “forced the then Chinese government to sign an unequal treaty to cede these islands and other Chinese territories to Japan,” referring to the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war. Japan should make it clear that the Senkaku Islands were not included in the Chinese territories ceded to Japan under the treaty. Rather, Japan declared the Senkaku Islands as part of Okinawa Prefecture in January 1895 after strictly following practices accepted under international law and confirming that they were not ruled by what was then China’s Qing Dynasty.

On Sept. 10, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called for returning to the joint understanding of the shelving of the Senkaku issue and resolving the dispute through negotiations. Japan should respond in kind and employ diplomacy characterized by caution, perseverance and ingenuity.