Japan’s effective nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has opened a Pandora’s box of conflicting sovereignty claims that China’s late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, tried in the late 1970s to keep sealed until wiser generations would be able to handle the issue.

Tokyo’s purchase of three of the five islets, all of which have long been under Japanese control, from a private owner for ¥2.05 billion on Sept. 11 sparked a chain reaction changing the nature of Japan’s relations with the other two claimants to the territory, China and Taiwan — and paradoxically weakened Japan’s ability to claim exclusive sovereignty over the islets.

Japan has repeatedly denied the existence of any dispute over the uninhabited islets in order to avoid being forced to negotiate with Taiwan and China, and therefore to ward off making concessions that could weaken its effective administration of the Senkakus and surrounding waters, or highlight the hypocrisy of its criticism of South Korea’s stance on the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute.

With regard to China, the way the Japan Coast Guard has dealt with the daily intrusion of Chinese vessels into the waters surrounding the Senkakus might be seen as an “implicit recognition” that a dispute over sovereignty exists.

In 2010, Japan Coast Guard vessels prevented Chinese fishing boats from entering what Japan considers its territorial waters, resulting in a widely broadcast high-seas confrontation. In contrast, the coast guard has been “escorting” Chinese ships inside the waters since the islets were nationalized in early September.

There is actually “coexistence” between Japanese and Chinese vessels near the Senkakus, even within what Japan sees as its territorial waters, professor Michael Sheng-Ti Gau of the National Taiwan Ocean University said.

“This fact demonstrates the recognition by the Japanese government of the existence of a dispute over sovereignty,” he added.

Under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, foreign vessels are allowed innocent passage inside the 12-nautical-mile limit of territorial waters, but the Convention does not provide for fishery or resources exploitation rights.

The sending of fishery administration boats by China is intentionally intended to prepare for its trawlers to enter the waters in the near future, according to Gau. China has also been sending scientific investigation boats and maritime surveillance vessels, the former with the purpose of finding out what kinds of resources are under the seabed, the latter for protecting the maritime interests of China, including the islets.

The intrusion of Chinese vessels will continue “on a daily basis and into the territorial waters” for the foreseeable future as a means to advance China’s claims over the area, Gau maintained.

Japan faces two painful alternatives created by the nationalization of the Senkakus: It can either continue its current policy of escorting Chinese boats, reflecting an implicit recognition that a dispute over sovereignty exists and must be dealt with, or prevent vessels from entering the territorial waters with the risk that the conflict with China will escalate.

Japan “misjudged” the situation in nationalizing the Senkakus, said Stephen Chen, the convener of the ruling Taiwanese party’s think tank, the National Security Foundation. Japan had tacit Chinese recognition of its exclusive administration over the islets before the nationalization provoked Beijing, but is now losing it, he added.

Regarding Taiwan, the nationalization of the islets triggered the linkage of two issues that both Taipei and Tokyo had so far painfully managed to keep separate from each other: sovereignty and fishing rights in the Senkakus’ surrounding waters.

“In the past, maybe we could consider putting aside the sovereignty issue, but now the fishery talks have to be put together with the sovereignty issue,” said professor Song Yann-huei of Academia Sinica, a powerful governmental think tank.

Following the nationalization, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou came under criticism for being too weak to affirm Taiwan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus and protect fishermen’s rights in surrounding waters.

“If you separate sovereignty from fishing rights issues, how can President Ma explain it to the public?” Song observed.

In early October the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry placed a full-page color advertisement in leading American newspapers saying, “Unless the relevant parties recognize that a dispute does indeed exist, a resolution cannot possibly be reached.”

The settlement of the fishery issue, which seems more remote than ever, would have appeased tensions with Taiwan, helped isolate China, and thus reinforced the Japanese position toward the mainland.

Deng’s Pandora’s box appears to have been opened too early by Japan, with potentially irreversible consequences for the future management of the issue and Japan’s claim for sovereignty.

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