“Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question,” Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said in 1978 about his country’s territorial dispute with Japan. “Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.”

In the meantime, Deng proposed, the two sides should jointly develop the area’s rich economic resources.

Thirty-four years later, there is still no common language on the disputed Diaoyu — or Senkaku — islands. In fact, the situation has reached critical proportions, with protests breaking out in dozens of cities across China over the Japanese government’s decision to nationalize the islands.

Japan insists that the decision to buy three islands from their private owner was taken to prevent them from being purchased by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which is headed by the rightwing nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, whose plans include activities on the islands likely to provoke China.

Beijing, however, sees this as merely an excuse for Japan to strengthen its legal standing over the islands vis-a-vis China.

From the Chinese standpoint, nationalization is a change in the status quo that has persisted since the dispute first arose in the 1970s.

The problem is that while top Japanese officials in the early days seemed to go along with Deng’s proposal, the Japanese government today doesn’t acknowledge an agreement to shelve the dispute. Japan officially doesn’t even recognize the existence of a Chinese claim.

In 2010, at the height of the last crisis over the islands, then Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said that Japan had never agreed to shelve the sovereignty dispute. He said Deng had made a unilateral statement that Japan never agreed to.

The Chinese foreign ministry, in a statement protesting against Japan’s nationalization, recalled that when China and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1972, leaders on both sides agreed to leave “the issue of the Diaoyu island to be resolved later.”

The ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, called on Japan to “return to the track of settling the dispute through negotiations.”

In the current, highly emotive atmosphere, it will not be easy to give diplomacy a chance to resolve the issue. But when things quiet down the two sides should contemplate the situation they are in.

What is needed on both sides is an acknowledgement of reality. The current situation, under which Japan Coast Guard vessels call on Chinese surveillance ships to leave Japanese waters and are told in turn that they should leave Chinese territorial seas immediately, has a surreal quality, to say the least.

Japan should acknowledge that there is a dispute over the ownership of the islands. This does not mean giving up its own claim, or indeed the control that it has over them. But the first step to the resolution of a problem is the recognition of its existence.

Japan and China should then hold talks about their dispute. China’s claim is rooted in history, and it is by no means trivial. But, as they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Japan has actually possessed these islands for most of the last century, so an international court may well rule in Tokyo’s favor.

But that won’t happen since neither China nor Japan is prepared to allow a court to make a binding resolution. So the deadlock over sovereignty will continue.

That being the case, the two sides should work out practical measures to prevent future conflicts. The most practical solution is to allow the status quo to continue. That is to say, the islands will remain under Japanese administration.

The islands, after all, have little intrinsic value. That is why they are uninhabited. Their value lies in the natural resources in and below the sea. Both China and Japan have reason to compromise — if reason can still prevail over emotions.

At present, neither side can exploit the rich energy resources in the area. Although Japan administers the islands, it has refrained from doing so for fear of provoking China.

It has been more than a generation since Deng sought to set aside Sino-Japanese differences in favor of joint development. In that period, no one has come up with a better idea.

In the absence of an alternative, it is high time for both China and Japan to seriously think about joint development of the oil and natural gas resources that both countries want.

They should give Deng’s proposal a chance to work. As recent events show, confrontation doesn’t work. Now both sides should give peace, cooperation and mutual benefit a chance.

Frank Ching is a commentator and journalist based in Hong Kong. Email: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: FrankChing1

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