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Observing the prolonged negotiations over the fate of five North Korean asylum seekers seized by Chinese police from the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang and the widespread criticism in Japan over the way that Japanese diplomats handled the matter, it seems vital to decouple the humanitarian issue from the inevitable rise of Sino-Japanese national rivalry. To do so is in the common interests of both Japan and China in ensuring human security and also regional stability in an increasingly volatile Northeast Asia.

Judging from the diplomatic wrangling between Tokyo and Beijing and the escalating domestic reaction to the crisis in both countries, one thing is clear: The longer the deadlock continues, the worse the suffering of those five desperate refugees will seem and the worse the conduct of Japanese and Chinese diplomacy will appear in the eyes of concerned parties all over the world. In order to get out of the current morass, both sides must focus on the humanitarian issue and cooperate in moving the refugees to a third country as soon as possible. If the two sides are determined to avoid a dangerous rift in their 30-year bilateral relationship, they should act to limit the damage already done to their national interests.

More contentious issues of sovereignty and international law are not going to be resolved easily through negotiation, for once national pride and domestic politics are involved, it is extremely difficult for one side to make the other side accept its version of what exactly occurred, let alone obtain an apology. This is because each side naturally believes the story of its own people, which makes it difficult to conduct an impartial joint verification of the actual facts.

From the repeated airing of video footage showing Chinese police trespassing on the grounds of the Japanese Consulate General, Japanese people may feel that their sovereignty was violated while their diplomats failed to show a proper sense of human rights and sovereignty. This may fuel nationalistic feeling, especially at a time when fears of China as a rapidly rising power are growing. In turn, Chinese people are suspicious about a revival of Japanese nationalism. Against this background, Chinese authorities are contending that their police entered the compound only with the consent of Japanese consular officials, insisting that the issue will be decided according to their interpretation of international and domestic laws.

Further complicating matters is the politicization of the issue in domestic politics. In Japan, some ruling Liberal Democratic Party members are calling for Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi to assume responsibility for the bungling of diplomats in Shenyang and Beijing, and some opposition leaders are going so far as to ask Koizumi to resign. The statement made by Japanese Ambassador to China Koreshige Anami that any North Korean asylum seekers entering the embassy in Beijing should be “driven out” is unfortunate in terms of its timing and context. As the issue of who is right and who is wrong is at stake, the Chinese authorities cannot back down from their official position, particularly at a time when their top leadership is about to hand over the reins of government to a new team. Under these circumstances, neither Koizumi nor Chinese President Jiang Zemin can concede to the other side for fear that they will be attacked by their domestic opponents.

However, Sino-Japanese cooperation is essential to deterring the humanitarian crisis that could be triggered by the incident and to maintaining ongoing peace and stability in Northeast Asia. It is likely that China’s cooperation will be necessary to achieve a diplomatic solution to the problem of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, and with the moment of truth approaching as to whether North Korea will continue its moratorium on missile testing and accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspection on its past nuclear records next year, Japan and China cannot afford to indulge in a fight over national pride.

They must settle the current crisis quickly and foster cooperation through quiet and professional diplomacy, instead of resorting to grandstanding tactics or escalating their rhetorical exchanges. It is time to put political rivalry aside and resurrect a cooperative spirit to overcome the danger posed by the refugee problem.

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