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Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012

Beijing and Tokyo calming Senkakus dispute

Special to The Japan Times

SHEFFIELD, England — On Saturday, the town of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, celebrated the 108th anniversary of the formal incorporation of the Senkaku Islands (known in Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands) into Japan.

The incorporation may have taken place more than 100 years ago, but the celebration of the anniversary itself began only last year — it is no coincidence that the Ishigaki municipal assembly voted to create the day within three months of the infamous Chinese trawler-Japan Coast Guard collision incident in 2010. On Jan. 3, ahead of the anniversary, several members of the Ishigaki Municipal Assembly landed on one of the disputed islands. While Beijing lodged a protest with Tokyo, overall the government and media response from both sides was relatively muted.

Later that same day boats carrying Chinese activists set sail from Hong Kong in a tit-for-tat attempt to land on the disputed islands, but were prevented from reaching the islands by Hong Kong authorities.

Chinese activists and Japanese local politicians landing on the these disputed islands is nothing new — this kind of activity has caused serious flareups in the past, particularly in 1996 and 2004.

What is new, and indeed encouraging, is the manner in which both Tokyo and Beijing dealt with these recent events. The Ishigaki municipal politicians who visited the islands earlier this month were acting to keep the issue in the national consciousness, thus forcing the central government to take a stronger line on the dispute. This is understandable when one considers the primary issue from an Ishigaki perspective: fishing. Chinese fishing boats regularly operate in the disputed waters around the islands.

Conversely, both the Chinese fishermen and activists operate under the assumption that the islands are Chinese and were stolen by Japan during the "century of humiliation," when a weak China was exploited and invaded, first by the Western powers, then by Japan.

As understandable as these positions might be from a neutral standpoint, events over the past two decades have demonstrated that they are mutually incompatible. In fact, the involvement of local politicians, activists and other nonstate actors (such as the skipper of the Chinese trawler in the 2010 collision incident) has caused major friction in the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Yet dealing with these actors is difficult: On the one hand, Beijing cannot be seen to crack down too harshly on activists promoting what is a sensitive and popular issue not only on the mainland but also in Taiwan. On the other hand, the relative proximity of the islands to Ishigaki makes it easier for Japanese citizens to slip past the coast guard. This is despite the fact that under the Koizumi administration the government leased the remaining islands which it did not already own, thereby making it illegal to land on any of them without permission. Indeed, at least one of the Ishigaki assembly members who landed earlier this month has already been fined for previous landings.

As we saw not only in 2010 but also in 1996 and 2004, the ability of nonstate actors to damage bilateral relations is very real, and, as the territorial dispute continues to gain traction on both sides of the East China Sea, the potential for such incidents to escalate is a serious concern. But last month, during Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's trip to Beijing, he and Premier Wen Jiabao formalized an agreement to create a maritime crisis management mechanism in order to avoid the escalation of precisely these kinds of incidents.

Given the deep interdependency of the two economies and the challenges presented by the current global economic downturn, keeping the dispute calm is clearly in the interests of both sides. Judging from the manner in which both Beijing and Tokyo have quietly managed the recent landing attempts, it would seem that the mechanism is working.

Activists, local politicians, and other nonstate actors cannot resolve the dispute — rather, the history of the dispute tells us their actions can only make the situation worse. Furthermore, for both Japan and China domestic sentiment means that any kind of territorial compromise is, at the moment, unthinkable. Thus the best course of action for both sides is to continue carefully managing the dispute as agreed in Beijing last month and demonstrated in the East China Sea early this month.

Preventing the dispute from needless flareups will allow the two sides to concentrate on other pressing issues, in particular negotiations on the joint development of the East China Sea undersea oil and gas deposits.

If the atmosphere of cooperation which created the crisis management mechanism can be extended to other aspects of the territorial dispute and indeed the broader bilateral relationship, it may remove the need for the future celebration of the anniversary of the incorporation of the Senkaku Islands and would bode well for the future security of Northeast Asia.

Paul O'Shea is finishing a joint doctoral program between the University of Sheffield and Tohoku University. His doctoral research was on Japan's territorial disputes.

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