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Friday, Oct. 12, 2012
No quick Senkakus fix, but return to status quo likely
Domestic issues preventing swift resolution of row
By AYAKO MIE
A month after the government nationalized the disputed Senkaku Islands, the furor that erupted shows no signs of abating and China has yet to indicate it is willing to back down and work to restore badly frayed bilateral ties.
Experts cite a lack of foreign policy expertise within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan for the contentious acquisition of three of the islets in the East China Sea, and are calling on the government to reverse Japan's decades-old official position and acknowledge that the Senkakus' sovereignty is indeed disputed by China, as well as Taiwan.
The government has attempted to justify the nationalization of Uotsuri, Kitakojima and Minamikojima in the Senkaku chain by portraying the move as necessary to block hawkish Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's plan to purchase the islets from a Saitama businessman who controlled their titles and develop basic infrastructure on them.
But such claims have failed to appease Beijing, which apparently suspects the central government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government of colluding to solidify Japan's control of the uninhabited isles and to weaken China's own territorial claim over what Beijing calls Diaoyu.
Distrust between the two countries started to spread well before the long-standing Senkaku row flared up again in mid-September, analysts point out.
In September 2010, the DPJ-led government violated an unspoken but time-honored diplomatic tradition by pressing charges against the skipper of a Chinese trawler that had rammed two Japan Coast Guard cutters trying to shoo it out of Japan's territorial waters off the Senkakus.
Arresting the skipper "was something the government should never have done," said Homare Endo, a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba who was born in northeastern China and has published several books on the country's politics and society.
"Bilateral relations have steadily declined since then, and the rift further deepened when Ishihara announced his plan to purchase the three Senkaku islets," Endo said.
"Dealing with China requires deft diplomacy. It cannot be a straightforward approach, something the DPJ has so far failed to grasp."
Previous governments under the Liberal Democratic Party, which was ousted from power by the DPJ in the 2009 general election, had respected a tacit agreement Tokyo allegedly reached with Beijing in the 1970s to maintain the status quo vis-a-vis the Senkakus and to avoid any overly aggressive assertions of sovereignty by either side.
When seven Chinese nationals landed on the islet of Uotsuri in March 2004, for instance, the LDP-led government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided against pressing charges and repatriated the group.
Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, however, had already chilled ties with China and other parts of Asia where Japan's wartime legacy remains a source of bitterness. Both sides subsequently tried to mend ties by holding diplomatic discussions, including on issues pertaining to the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing agreed in 2008 to jointly develop a gas field.
Despite starkly conflicting historical interpretations of the Imperial army's invasion of China and atrocities its troops committed in the war, LDP-led administrations and Beijing still managed to walk a fine diplomatic line, especially over the Senkakus.
In 1972, when then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai normalized bilateral ties, Zhou reportedly suggested leaving the Senkaku issue for future generations to resolve. The U.S. returned the islets to Japan along with Okinawa the same year.
In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping also proposed shelving the matter for the time being at a new conference in Tokyo after the two sides signed a bilateral peace and friendship treaty.
Neither accord, however, included any formal mention of such an arrangement.
Successive generations of LDP lawmakers then ensured that strong ties with Beijing were maintained, serving as de facto guardians of the spirit of the 1978 accord.
"When I talked with LDP lawmakers about diplomatic policy toward China, they always thoroughly grilled me" for information, said Motofumi Asai, who headed the Foreign Ministry's China and Mongolia Division from 1983 to 1985.
"They understood the situation very well, and we did not have to worry about any diplomacy (missteps) with Beijing."
But the 2009 rise to power of the DPJ, which lacks close ties with the Chinese Communist Party, immediately put Beijing on guard.
The Chinese government apparently viewed former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa as the only ray of hope in building relations of trust, since he had been groomed by Tanaka, had met with President Hu Jintao during a visit to China and wielded considerable power inside the party as head of a 140-member-strong faction at the time.
However, the Chinese trawler skipper's arrest the following year shattered those hopes.
Then-Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara promptly rubbed more salt in the wound by confirming with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the bilateral security treaty covers the Senkakus, deepening China's suspicions that Japan and the U.S. are working in unison to contain its rise and regional ambitions.
"The last thing China wants is U.S. involvement on this issue," said Kazuko Mouri, professor emeritus at Waseda University and an expert on Chinese politics.
Maehara, now national policy minister, stoked Beijing's anger even further in 2010 by rejecting claims that Tokyo actually reached a tacit understanding with Beijing in the 1970s to tread carefully in regard to the Senkakus' sovereignty.
Asai, the former China division chief, was critical of the ruling party's apparent about-face, saying, "The continuation of foreign policy should not be affected by the handover of power from the LDP to DPJ."
Still, analysts are divided on whether such an understanding was ever reached in the first place.
"Japan and China only said they would not touch on the issue, but that does not necessarily mean there was an agreement," said Chuo University professor Ryuji Hattori, who has written extensively about Sino-Japanese relations.
But other commentators argue that a deal to shelve the Senkaku dispute in the 1970s would have been advantageous to both sides, allowing Japan to maintain administrative control of the islets for the foreseeable future while enabling China to normalize bilateral ties amid its deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union.
Although neither Japan nor China can afford to let the row escalate much further at this point, experts stress that the domestic political climate in each country is preventing their leaders from making any compromises.
Some argue the election of the hawkish Shinzo Abe as leader of the LDP is a sign that nationalism is on the rise in Japan, and warn that if the party wins the next general election and he remains at its helm — and hence becomes prime minister — he could well adopt a much tougher foreign policy.
"It's difficult (at present for politicians in Japan) to develop channels with China, as dealing with Beijing could risk" their electoral prospects, Chuo University's Hattori said.
In China, meanwhile, the Communist Party is scheduled to hold a rare national congress Nov. 8 at which Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao as the country's new leader.
Experts say Beijing can no longer ignore rampant anti-Japanese sentiment among sizeable elements of the public because the nationwide wave of anger triggered by the Senkaku nationalization could easily evolve into a revolt against the Communist Party's rule, as frustration is already mounting over the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor.
"China's leaders are being tested (based on the extent of) their hardline stance on Japan," Mouri at Waseda University noted.
Many commentators agree that while China could demand that Japan finally acknowledge that a territorial dispute exists over the isles, Beijing will eventually return to the same stance proposed by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping in the '70s: namely, to put the issue firmly on the back burner again.
"Although China's leaders are likely to demand that Japan rescind its nationalization of the Senkakus, they also understand that it's hard for Tokyo to do so" right now, Asai said.
"The middle ground would involve shelving the issue and beginning to codevelop the East China Sea gas field again, as China has frozen its participation since the 2010 (coast guard run-in) incident."
Analysts are also urging that a bilateral diplomatic hotline be set up to help resolve future crises, since neither China, Japan nor the U.S. want the Senkakus rift to degenerate into warfare.
"A military confrontation is the last thing we want," Endo at the University of Tsukuba said, "but we have to brace for every possibility."