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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

Cooperation key to resolving Senkaku dispute

HONG KONG — Japan and China took their dispute over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea to the international community last week when their leaders addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda emphasized the importance of rule of law, without mentioning China. "Any state has a responsibility to protect peace, ensure the safety of its people, and protect its sovereignty, territorial land and sea," he said. "Japan will also fulfill such responsibility in accordance with international law."

At a press conference, however, Noda insisted that "so far as the Senkaku islands are concerned, they are the inherent part of our territory."

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, was more direct. "Japan stole Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands from China," he told the General Assembly, using the Chinese name for the islands.

With that, the two sides crossed swords. Kazuo Kodama, Japan's deputy ambassador, told the United Nations that China had never challenged Japanese sovereignty over the islands until the 1970s, after a U.N. survey found that reserves of oil and gas could lie beneath the waters.

China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, responded by calling Japan's nationalization of the islands "nothing different from money laundering," aimed at legalizing "its stealing and occupation" of Chinese territory. Chinese state media has publicly called the Japanese prime minister a thief and a liar.

Why has China reacted so strongly and so personally to the actions of the Japanese government?

One reason may be the feeling that President Hu Jintao, who had objected strongly to Noda's nationalization plan, had been snubbed. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato, one of a handful of Japanese lawmakers who went to Beijing despite cancellation of official events to mark the 40th anniversary of China-Japan relations, said that former State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan had angrily told members of his delegation: "President Hu met Prime Minister Noda on the sidelines of a regional summit in Vladivostok at Japan's request, but Japan decided to nationalize the islands the next day. How could you do such a thing?"

In New York, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made it clear that Washington would not attempt to play the role of mediator. She called for a dialogue on the issue and asked the two countries to let "cooler heads prevail."

Meanwhile, China took its case to the American public by publishing two-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times under the headline "Diaoyu Islands Belong to China."

Earlier in the week, China published a white paper on the issue in Chinese, Japanese and English to enable the international community to better understand the Chinese position.

In the face of such challenges, Japan has been forced to respond despite its official position that there is no territorial dispute. The Asahi Shimbun pointed out that the government had "changed course and begun to aggressively speak out on Japan's legitimate sovereignty."

On Sept. 27, the Japanese Foreign Ministry issued a document listing what it called the facts about the issue, presumably in response to the Chinese white paper.

Japanese chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura explained that, with China voicing its side of the argument, "we felt there was also a need to explain our position just as strongly."

So, the public debate has been joined. So far, China appears to have an edge. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who allowed a Taiwan scholar to present the Chinese case in his space,* wrote that "on balance I find the evidence for Chinese sovereignty quite compelling" and invited any Japanese scholar "to make the contrary legal case."

And Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, citing the research of the scholar Unryu Suganuma, was skeptical of the Japanese case.

While neither Japan nor China will give up its claim, international public opinion can make a difference, perhaps by leading the two countries to decide to let the International Court of Justice adjudicate.

The two countries ought to realize that they should not let their differences over this issue affect their overall relationship.

They should return to the position they adopted in 2008, when they issued a joint statement saying they "recognized that the two countries' sole option is to cooperate to enhance peace and friendship over the long term."

From this starting point, they should be able to deal pragmatically with their sovereignty dispute over the islands and reach an accommodation on the riches of the surrounding seas.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1 * kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/the-inconvenient-truth-behind-the-diaoyusenkaku-islands/

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