Japan and China have largely agreed on how to implement a maritime and aerial communication mechanism aimed at averting unintended clashes in and above the East China Sea amid a long-running territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
The mechanism, a sort of hotline between defense officials from the two countries, is expected to be put into practice in the near future after a decade of hard-fought negotiations.
Japan and China must still work out the details of the mechanism before reaching an official agreement.
The breakthrough was struck during a two-day meeting of senior officials in Shanghai, the ministry said. It is yet another sign of bilateral ties improving at a rapid pace after October’s twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, where President Xi Jinping further consolidated his grip on power.
In the wake of the congress, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi agreed on the sidelines of a regional economic summit in Vietnam last month that Asia’s two biggest economies would make a “fresh start” after ties had frayed over the territorial dispute.
Diplomats and defense officials from the two countries were engaged in behind-the-scene negotiations this autumn and both sides agreed during the Shanghai meeting not to specify the geographical scope of the mechanism, sources close to bilateral relations said.
Efforts to reach an agreement on the mechanism had been stymied by a major stumbling block — how to treat territorial waters and airspace around the Japanese-administered Senkakus, uninhabited islands that China calls the Diaoyus. Taiwan also claims the islands, which it calls the Tiaoyutais.
Japan has demanded that its territorial waters and airspace do not fall within the scope of the mechanism, out of concern that China could take advantage of the deal to strengthen its claim to the islands by interpreting the new framework as giving it a legitimate right to approach them.
In working toward the implementation of the mechanism, senior Japanese and Chinese officials are believed to have agreed that the system will not undermine the legal positions of each country.
The two countries first agreed to create a maritime and aerial hotline in 2007, but disagreements over the islands and wartime legacy issues, as well as regional rivalry, often stymied relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies, preventing the two from clinching a deal.
The Senkakus have been at the center of a dangerous game of cat and mouse between Tokyo and Beijing in the East China Sea.
In 2012, the central government purchased some of the islands from a private Japanese owner, bringing them under state control, a move that stoked anger in China and contributed to frosty ties.
Since then, China has regularly sent government ships to the waters near the disputed islands, prompting Tokyo to dispatch Japan Coast Guard vessels to the area and contributing to worries in the region that an accident or miscalculation could erupt into conflict.
China has also sent bombers and intelligence-gathering aircraft through international airspace between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the East China Sea, part of what Beijing has called continued “regular” exercises in the area.
China, under Xi, has embarked on a large-scale campaign of modernizing its military — especially its air force and navy — as it seeks to project power farther from its shores, stoking concern in Tokyo.
In a speech during a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress last month, Xi said China is aiming to become a “world-class” force that safeguards the country’s “territorial integrity.”