Calmer heads need to prevail, Chinese experts warn

by Ko Hirano


With tensions over the Senkaku Islands showing no signs of subsiding, Beijing appears determined to keep sending vessels into the waters near the Japan-administered chain to stake its claim to the area.

Just as Japanese ships patrol waters around the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, China sends vessels into the area in what Chinese scholars say is a countermeasure against Japan’s nationalization of the chain last September.

Despite Japan’s protests against the territorial intrusions, “it would be impossible for China to unilaterally withdraw ships from there,” Li Wei, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said in a recent interview.

“We are seeing a new situation regarding the islands” that China claims as its own, Li said.

Chinese surveillance ships have been frequently entering what Beijing claims are its 12-nautical-mile territorial waters around the Senkakus, known as Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, since last September, when the Japanese government bought three of the islets from a Saitama businessman.

On Saturday, three Chinese maritime surveillance ships entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus for the 48th time since September.

Li said that because both Chinese and Japanese ships continue to operate in the 12-nautical-mile zone, the two governments should work out some rules — such as no first-use of weapons and a minimum separation distance to avoid collisions — to achieve what she calls “dynamic equilibrium.”

“Under the new situation, the two sides should pursue dynamic equilibrium while committing to conduct no further provocative acts,” she said. “This way, the two sides can enter a new phase of shelving disputes concerning sovereignty.”

Before the Japanese government purchased the three islets last fall, increasing its total to four, Li said China had refrained from sending ships into nearby waters and from allowing Chinese people to land on them to ensure “static equilibrium.”

Chinese officials have accused Japan of breaking that balance and of denying Beijing’s assertion that the two nations came to an understanding on the sovereignty issue during talks on normalizing diplomatic relations in 1972.

Japan maintains there is no territorial dispute over the Senkakus and therefore insists the two sides have nothing to shelve.

China claims the islets have been its inherent territory since ancient times and that Japan “stole” them in January 1895 in the final phase of the Sino-Japanese War.

Japan says it incorporated the islands into its territory in January 1895 after a 10-year survey found they had been uninhabited and showed no signs of having been under the control of the Qing Dynasty of China.

These measures, according to Japan, were carried out in accordance with the ways of duly acquiring territorial sovereignty under international law.

Experts suggest China and Japan should cool public sentiment on the issue and keep it separate from economic affairs, such as negotiations on the trilateral free-trade agreement involving the two countries plus South Korea, to improve overall relations.

“If ‘netizens’ are involved, the issue will become hot and the governments will find it difficult to deal with,” said Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, referring to people on the Internet. “Less media coverage and public attention would make it possible to put this issue in the hands of professional diplomats.”

Jin urged the two countries to set up a crisis management mechanism as soon as possible to minimize the danger of a maritime incident erupting near the islets.

“From the Chinese perspective, we don’t want to see tensions around China,” he said in an interview. “Our new leadership faces problems such as an economic slowdown, public anger over corruption and environmental degradation. They are eager to put issues such as the Diaoyu and the South China Sea aside.”

Both Li and Jin believe that improved bilateral relations will be possible after the Upper House election is held in late July, but only if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — whose ruling coalition is expected — forgoes visiting Yasukuni Shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

“If Mr. Abe visits Yasukuni, no Chinese leader would want to talk to him,” Jin said. “China regards it as politically incorrect.”

The Tokyo shrine honors Japan’s war dead, including several Class-A war criminals, and is viewed by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Li said that for the two governments to arrange a high-level meeting, such as a summit between Abe and President Xi Jinping, the two sides need to seriously discuss what kind of relationship they want and what such relations would bring in the future.

“China and Japan advocate ‘a strategic relationship of mutual benefit,’ but this is a rather vague concept,” she said. “If we can define our relationship in clearer terms, it will be easier for us to handle such issues as the perception of history, the Diaoyu issue, military exchanges and China’s potential participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade initiative.”

Li dismissed the suggestion that China should refer the Senkaku sovereignty issue to the International Court of Justice, saying it is “a historical issue rather than an issue involving international law.”

Jin said China does not want to “internationalize” the issue. “China favors addressing the issue bilaterally,” he said.

If China involved the world court in the Senkaku case, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea would follow suit, making the situation more complicated, he said.

Coronavirus banner