Commentary / Japan

Finding common ground on the Senkakus dispute

by Mamoru Ishida

Europe has achieved Franco-German reconciliation and European integration, but in Asia, Japan and China are struggling with their bilateral history issue some 67 years after the end of World War II.

China criticizes Japan for its lack of soul-searching about the war — unlike Germany. I think the international environments and the obtuseness of the Japanese about history are responsible.

Germany and France were able to achieve reconciliation within the Western bloc during the Cold War, while Japan and China were divided, with Japan in the American bloc and China in the Soviet bloc. It was only at the time of the negotiations for normalizing their bilateral relations in 1972 that the leaders of Japan and China met for the first time.

In Europe where countries are contiguous with each other, people of the victor countries and those of the defeated countries had war experiences in common. But many Japanese, including myself, were not really aware of the ravages of war suffered by China across the sea. Even now in China memories of war experiences are being told and passed on by the victims of the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s and ’40s and their families as well as through the state’s patriotic education.

But in Japan people’s memories of the war are fading as members of the war generation pass away. A Chinese friend told me of his deep concern that the memory gap between the young people of the two countries portends a severe future in store for Japan-China relations.

Both Japan and China claim ownership of the Senkaku Islands. Japan insists on the lawfulness of the procedure that it employed to incorporate the islands into Japanese territories in 1895. China insists that the incorporation itself of the islands by Japan into its territories toward the end of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 was illegal.

Another Chinese friend of mine says that unless Japan understands Chinese people’s feelings toward what Japan did toward the end of the war, which he says was a war of imperialism, and unless Japan understands Korean people’s feelings toward Japan’s incorporation of the Takeshima Islands into Shimane Prefecture around the time when Japan was moving toward colonizing Korea, it will not be able to maintain friendly relations with China and Korea.

Most Japanese are not aware of the fact that the Senkaku issue is connected with the issue of historical perception between Japan and China.

Attention also must be paid to China’s emerging maritime strategy. President Hu Jintao, who stepped down on March 14, had announced a target of doubling its gross domestic product and per-capita national income by 2020 from the 2010 levels. Securing the enormous natural resources needed for income-doubling in the national economy of 1.3 billion people is a break-or-make issue in view of the social stability of China. Hu clearly specified China’s maritime strategy for securing resources by saying, “We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” This explains why China is applying military and diplomatic pressure on Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

According to an account that Hiroshi Hashimoto — who attended the negotiations for the restoration of Japan-China diplomatic relations in 1972 as head of the Foreign Ministry’s China Division —made in 2000 after his retirement, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai proposed to leave the Senkaku territorial sovereignty issue untouched at that time on the grounds that the negotiations would not be concluded should the issue be taken up, and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka agreed. Hashimoto’s account mostly matches the corresponding description contained in the memoir of Zhang Xiangshan, who attended the negotiations as an advisor for China’s Foreign Ministry.

In 1978, Vice President Deng Xiaoping on his visit to Japan expressed his intention to leave the settlement of the territorial dispute to a future generation by saying, “Our generation lacks wisdom. But a future generation will have wisdom.”

Because of these exchanges of views, China believed that a mutual understanding had been reached between China and Japan that the two countries would shelve the territorial issue over the Senkaku Islands. Japan on its part mostly acted in such a manner as to suggest that there was such a common view.

When Japan nationalized Uotsurishima and two other Senkaku islets in September “to continue peaceable and stable control” of the islands, China strongly protested by saying that Japan ignored the common understanding of shelving the territorial issue. Since 2010, the Democratic Party of Japan government had claimed that there “exists no territorial issue (concerning the Senkaku Islands) from the first” and insisted that Deng’s statement was a “unilateral statement, to which the Japanese side did not agree.”

Japan’s denial of the common understanding of shelving the territorial issue has apparently led China to conclude that such an understanding no longer exists. Beijing has since strengthened surveillance by boats and aircraft around the Senkaku Islands. The Feb. 5 announcement by the Japanese government that Chinese frigates locked their fire-control radar on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter and a destroyer has shown that unpredictable incidents can happen at any time.

On the following day, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in Washington that an unexpected act could create an even greater crisis. The U.S. has repeatedly made it clear that it takes no side on the territorial dispute over the Senkakus. But it has made it clear that it has an obligation to defend the islands under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

Therefore if a contingency develops between Japan and China, the U.S. will face the danger of being militarily involved. If this happens, U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy, which his economic plan depends on to create jobs for Americans, would suffer a setback. Thus the U.S. has been urging Japan and China to solve the dispute through diplomatic means.

It is said that the series of threatening activities by Chinese ships and aircraft are meant to persuade Japan to agree to settle the territorial issue through negotiations. But the means themselves not only heighten the risk of causing an unexpected contingency but also stir up anti-China sentiment among the Japanese public.

Both Chinese and Japanese political leaders need to recognize anew that diplomacy will not be successful unless both countries gain the understanding of their own people as well as the other side’s people.

Because a military settlement of the territorial dispute is out of the question, the only realistic way to stabilize Japan-China relations is for both countries to go back to the idea of shelving the Senkaku Islands sovereignty issue.

Prior to his meeting with Chinese Communist Party Secretary General Xi Jinping, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV on Jan. 21 that shelving the dispute and leaving it to later generations represent wise judgment.

Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, said in his meeting with Yamaguchi that leaving the issue to later generations can be one option. I do not think that Wang made the statement in defiance of Xi’s intentions.

On the following day, Jan. 25, Yamaguchi met with Xi and handed him a personal letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is reported that Abe and Xi are open to the idea of holding a summit.

The sequence of these events suggests a certain direction that both countries are considering taking. Xi asked Japan to create an environment favorable for holding a summit — respecting history as well as reality and making joint efforts with China to seek effective methods of controlling and resolving problems through dialogue and consultations. Behind his remarks was the pressure of Chinese public opinion.

A hard-line opinion that is getting the upper hand holds that the territorial issue should not be left for future generations to solve but should be solved by the current generation. Twists and turns are expected before a summit is held. There is no prediction that an agreement will be reached on going back to the earlier understanding that the territorial issue should be shelved.

If such agreement is reached, the risks of unexpected contingencies will decrease and the way will be paved for the joint development of maritime resources.

China has all along proposed the idea of joint development of maritime resources in the East China Sea. During talks with Komeito chairman Yoshikatsu Takeiri in July 1972, Premier Zhou proposed to shelve the territorial issue for the time being and promote joint development of oil resources. In June 1979, China proposed through diplomatic channels the joint development of maritime resources in areas adjacent to Uotsurishima.

In a July 10 Japanese Cabinet meeting that year, Transport Minister Kinji Moriyama proposed an idea of promoting joint development projects of the kind that “will not be hindered by China” and Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda agreed to it. In 1986, Deng proposed to visiting Philippine President Corazon Aquino the concept of setting aside the territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands and promoting joint development of maritime resources.

In fact, Japan and China agreed in June 2008 to develop gas fields jointly in the East China Sea in such a manner as to avoid impairing the legal standings of either side. Regrettably, however, strong domestic objections to the agreement persisted within China and the country has since been carrying out unilateral development of the area.

It might be possible that China, which traditionally advocated the concept of setting aside the territorial dispute and called for joint development of maritime resources, will consider the current economic and political costs as well as the potential risks of accidental military conflict, and move to work out a new understanding with Japan. Such a development would bring about a peaceful environment and mutual economic benefits.

In both Japan and China, it is not easy to persuade people to accept the concept of joint development within each country’s “inherent territory” because the political situation in both countries is likely to be swayed by populism and nationalism.

But current circumstances — in which there is no denying that some accidental conflict might break out at any time — are very dangerous.

For East Asia, which includes Japan, China and Korea, and for ASEAN countries having maritime disputes with China, the rational option should be sharing economic benefits and forging peaceful relations, instead of staking the lives of a large number of people on territorial sovereignty disputes over the Senkaku Islands and the Spratly and Paracel island chains. East Asia should emulate the experience of Europe, which pushed the movement toward regional integration starting with joint control of its coal and steel productions and supplies.

Mamoru Ishida, an adviser to Itochu Corp., is a visiting professor at China’s University of International Business and Economics and at Beijing City University.