Five years after nationalization of the Senkaku Islands

Five years after the government nationalized the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture by purchasing three of the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, Japan’s relationship with China has yet to be restored to what it was before the dispute deepened over the Senkakus — over which Beijing also claims sovereignty. The move at one point sent bilateral ties plummeting to their worst level since the two governments normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. Signs are growing, however, that both sides are seeking to improve their chilly relations. Tokyo and Beijing should seize on the momentum to rebuild ties by setting aside their differences over the Senkaku dispute.

In his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan is ready to cooperate with Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” cross-continental infrastructure development initiative under certain conditions, reversing Tokyo’s earlier caution toward the project. Both Abe and Xi reportedly agreed on the need to improve bilateral ties. Last Friday, a ceremony commemorating the 45th anniversary of the 1972 normalization of relations was held in Beijing — after the event to mark the 40th anniversary five years ago was canceled due to the Chinese backlash against the Japanese move on the disputed islets.

The government is also said to be in talks with Beijing for Abe’s trip to China and Xi’s reciprocal visit to Japan next year. A resumption of regular top-level contacts will hold the key to improving bilateral ties. Both governments should keep up the efforts to make that happen.

In September 2012, then Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda purchased the Senkaku islets from their private owner — in a decision intended to thwart the move by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, known for his hawkish position toward China, to have the metropolitan government buy the islets. China reacted fiercely to the action anyway, denouncing the purchase as Japan’s move to step up its effective control of the disputed islands. A series of massive anti-Japanese demonstrations ensued in cities across China.

To demonstrate its claim over the Senkakus, China started frequently sending its government vessels into Japan’s territorial waters around the islets as well as into the contiguous zone. Incursions of Chinese coast guard vessels into the territorial waters, which rarely took place until the Senkakus were nationalized, numbered 20 in the last four months of 2012 and hit 52 the following year. These vessels continue to habitually enter the waters around the Senkakus — and 22 such cases were observed through the end of August this year. China in 2013 unilaterally established an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea — including the airspace over the Senkakus.

Japan, for its part, considered Chinese moves over the Senkakus to be part of the regional security threat posed by China, and turned to the security alliance with the United States to keep Beijing in check. Upon Japan’s request, U.S. leaders have reiterated that the Senkakus fall into the category of “territories under the administration of Japan” that the U.S. would be bound by its security treaty with Japan to defend against enemy attack.

In November 2014, the Japanese and Chinese government reached a four-point agreement calling for the development of a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit” and creation of a crisis-management mechanism between the two countries, setting the stage for a subsequent Abe-Xi meeting in Beijing, the first summit between top Japanese and Chinese leaders in more than two years. However, the efforts to initiate a thaw in Tokyo-Beijing ties then stalled as China stepped up its aggressive maritime moves in the South China Sea, including the creation and militarization of man-made islands in disputed territories — and Japan joined the international criticism against China.

The five years since the nationalization of the Senkakus have indicated that a compromise is difficult to achieve for both sides when a territorial dispute comes to the fore of relations between countries. The Japanese government has essentially maintained the status quo over the Senkaku Islands. It has not developed the islets and prohibits people from landing on them. China has almost regularized its coast guard vessels’ incursion of the territorial waters around the Senkakus — at a pace of two or three times a month — to demonstrate its claim of sovereignty.

If it is difficult to get China to end such actions, as the past five years would appear to indicate to be the case, a practical solution for Japan and China would be to effectively shelve the dispute given the stakes of improving the bilateral relationship.