There are two all-important tasks the third Abe administration must undertake: overcoming deflation through “Abenomics” and the genuine overhaul of Japan-China relations following the recent meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping.

As for the second task, the Japanese and Chinese governments, ahead of the Abe-Xi talks held in Beijing last November, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, issued a “Four Point Consensus.”

The third point of this joint statement reads as follows: “Both sides recognized that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands, and shared the view that, through dialogue and consultation, they would prevent the deterioration of the situation, establish a crisis management mechanism and avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances.” In short, Japan and China have confirmed that they will “agree to disagree” with regard to the “tense situation” in the East China Sea.

Since Japan and China normalized diplomatic relations in 1972, both sides have deferred “to the wisdom of future generations” the question of territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands. This has effectively amounted to a policy of shelving the issue “with neither concession nor escalation” by either side.

But the tensions in the East China Sea, including those surrounding the Senkaku Islands, involve far more than territorial rights to the islets themselves. The issue is closely intertwined with other complex factors, such as maritime strategy, energy, Taiwan, and contested historical interpretations of the Sino-Japanese War.

At the root of the issue is China’s growing strategic will to the sea. China has begun to view the East China Sea (and the South China Sea) as crucial to its national interests. China is now searching for a long-term, aggressive maritime strategy for marginalizing Japan, weakening the Japan-U.S. alliance, and expelling the U.S. from the Western Pacific region.

Since December 2008, China has flaunted its presence by regularly deploying ships to the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands — each time forcing the Japan Coast Guard to respond. There is no guarantee that this state of affairs will not, at any given moment, lead to a military clash. The aggressive nature of China’s foreign policy was demonstrated by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during his speech at the July 2010 foreign ministers’ meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, where he declared that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

Yang went on to emphasize that “outsiders” — in other words, the U.S. — could not claim an interest in developments in the South China Sea, drawing a rejoinder from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In his 30-minute speech, Yang effectively ruined China’s heretofore low-profile foreign policy and its claims to a “peaceful rise.”

In this context, the agreements reached prior to the Japan-China summit, including the “agreement to disagree,” can be described as a step in the right direction. This is because agreeing to disagree can give rise to “constructive ambiguity” in diplomacy.

U.S. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s 1972 agreement with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, known as the Shanghai Communique, is the archetypal example of constructive ambiguity. The U.S. supported a position taken by both China and Taiwan — that “there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of that one China” — thereby laying the foundation for normalizing relations with China.

The U.S. successfully handled its relations with China by intentionally keeping this statement ambiguous and refraining from interfering in the matter of Taiwanese sovereignty. All parties realized there was nothing to gain by putting the true meaning of this statement to the test. This demonstrates the great efficacy of ambiguity.

But to make use of constructive ambiguity, both sides must deepen their shared understanding of the very concept of peace. Peace is not achieved by creating the framework for a fundamental solution that eliminates all potential threats to it. Rather, the essence of peace can be found when, even if a fundamental solution cannot be reached, “the process of transforming conflict into peace through nonviolent means takes root” — as Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung has put it.

The establishment of this process is nothing other than the achievement of peace itself. This is the understanding that must be shared by all parties.

Of course, the constructive ambiguity inherent when parties agree to disagree results in merely postponing a resolution of the problem, and this ambiguity can bring about instability and escalate tensions. It is indeed a “second best” solution at most.

Nonetheless, the fact that top leaders of Japan and China publicly agreed to disagree sent a signal to the Japanese and Chinese people that both sides are deeply concerned about the possibility of a military clash in the East China Sea — in other words, that their leaders share the same fears.

This marks a clear difference from Japan’s relations with South Korea. Japanese and South Korean leaders do not consider military conflict between the two countries as a potential risk.

The fear that inevitably surfaces in the handling of Sino-Japanese relations is not apparent in Japan’s dealings with South Korea. On the contrary, an infantile fastidiousness prevails in Japanese-Korean relations, leaving no room to agree to disagree or tolerance for constructive ambiguity.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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