Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,

As I look to your future as prime minister, I cannot help but be reminded of a famous scene from the silent film era, namely, two steam locomotives rushing toward each other at full speed. We all know the devastating results.

At a press conference on Dec. 17, you stated: “The (Senkakus are) the inherent territory of Japan. . . . We own and effectively control them. There is no room for negotiations about that.”

Three months earlier, on Sept. 25, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China stated: “Diaoyu Dao (the Senkakus) and its affiliated islands are an inseparable part of the Chinese territory. Diaoyu Dao is China’s inherent territory in all historical, geographical and legal terms, and China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over Diaoyu Dao.”

“No room for negotiations” versus “indisputable sovereignty.” Can there be any doubt that Japan and China are on a collision course? Is there no peaceful way to prevent the two locomotives from colliding?

The Chinese side notes that it was not until five years after the creation of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 that the Japanese government first contemplated taking control of the Senkakus. It didn’t do so, they say, because Japan feared war with China at a time when Japan’s own military power was still untested.

In support of their position, the Chinese reference a letter written by Foreign Minister Kaoru Inoue on Oct. 21, 1885, addressed to Minister of Internal Affairs Aritomo Yamagata: “At present, any open moves such as placing sovereignty markers (on Diaoyu Dao) are bound to alert the Qing imperial court. . . . In the meantime, we will wait for a better time to engage in such activities.”

Inoue’s “better time,” the Chinese claim, did not arrive until Dec. 27, 1894, when Minister of Internal Affairs Yasushi Nomura informed Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu that “circumstances have now changed.” The Japanese Cabinet then passed a secret resolution on Jan. 14, 1895, placing what would be renamed as the Senkaku Islands under Japanese control.

The Chinese assert that Nomura’s “changed circumstances” refer to the fact that with its capture of Port Arthur (present-day Lushun, Liaoning Province) in December 1894, Japan was confident of victory in the Sino-Japanese War. Subsequently, in the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed in April 1895, Japan forced China to cede control of Taiwan “with all islands appertaining or belonging to it.”

In the Chinese view, the Senkakus should have reverted to China together with Taiwan following Japan’s surrender at the end of the Pacific War. This would have occurred, they claim, had it not been for U.S. intervention in the face of the communist takeover of China. Eventually the U.S. military would use two of the Senkakus as bombing ranges, something it continues to this day on one of the islands.

Japan, of course, has its own competing version of history, beginning with the fact that the islands were uninhabited when the first Japanese explored them in 1894. Further, there was no indication that the islands were part of China or had ever been inhabited by Chinese. Japan asserts the islands were terra nullius, and therefore Japan had the right to incorporate them into its territory. The Japanese side notes this incorporation was done prior to the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in April 1895 and was therefore not covered by that treaty.

As a layman, Prime Minister, I cannot say with certainty which of these two competing versions is correct. Yet there is clearly historical evidence that supports both sides. What is to be done?

In times past, disputes of this kind would likely have been resolved on the battlefield. Yet, in light of the destructive power of modern warfare, is this even thinkable?

Fortunately, there is today a fair, impartial venue for resolving disputes of this nature. I refer to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Inasmuch as Japan has already proposed using this venue for resolving its dispute with South Korea over Takeshima (Dokdo), why not the Senkakus as well?

The choice is yours, Prime Minister Abe. In the meantime, two locomotives, now in the form of ships and aircraft, grow ever closer to making direct and potentially vastly destructive contact. Please act before it is too late.

Yellow Springs, Ohio

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