On July 5, amid Japanese talk about “nationalizing” the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — Chinese protests and Taiwanese declarations that “we will not budge one step,” President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed an East China Sea peace initiative.
Ma’s proposal contains five points. First, a hope that each party will show self-restraint and refrain from actions that could intensify confrontation. Second, setting aside any disputes and maintaining dialogue and communication. Third, adhering to international law and resolving any disputes peacefully. Fourth, striving for consensus and setting a code of conduct for the East China Sea. Fifth, establishing a mechanism for cooperation on development of the East China Sea.
The first three points probably reflect Ma’s main considerations in proposing this initiative.
First of all, the tensions surrounding the Diaoyutai issue has lead to outbursts of nationalism in China and Japan. If relations between the two sides cannot be cooled, the end result may be a Sino-Japanese clash.
Second, Beijing has to deal with its leadership change at the 18th National People’s Congress and Japan might have to hold a general election. In this situation, nationalistic pressures will ensure that neither China nor Japan will be willing to compromise on the issue.
Third, it is not impossible that Washington could try to calm things down, which might be particularly effective with respect to Japan. However, because of the possibility of an election looming in Japan, a call from Washington to stop pushing for the “nationalization” of the Diaoyutais might fall on deaf ears.
Fourth, it would be even more difficult for Washington to encourage calm and self-restraint in Beijing. Each side is suspicious of the other’s strategic goals and the US’ “pivot” to Asia in practice amounts to containment of China.
Furthermore, the two countries are exchanging barbs over China’s establishment of Sansha City and a military garrison in the South China Sea. The US and Japan have a joint security treaty. Even if Washington mediates between China and Japan, it will undoubtedly be seen as favoring Japan.
Fifth, since both China and Japan have their respective political considerations, it is currently inappropriate for the US to step in as a mediator.
Given this, Ma’s peace initiative is very timely for all three parties involved.
Given the timing, Ma’s proposal, in particular the first three items, is probably precisely what Beijing and Tokyo want. However, they cannot admit this. It is also what the US wants, but cannot ask for.
Presently, Beijing and Tokyo cannot admit to supporting Taipei’s peace initiative, because if they do, they will be seen as showing weakness in the face of their opponents. Although both China and Japan are taking an extreme line on the dispute, they are doing so in an attempt to improve their bargaining situation. Neither is prepared for military conflict.
The peace initiative offers both China and Japan, as well as the US, a great opportunity to calm the situation. In international politics, an inability to correctly understand an opponent frequently results in mistakes and misperceptions that may cause misjudgements.
Often, conflicts continue due to an unwillingness to back down or “lose face.” The East China Sea peace initiative offers China and Japan a timely opportunity to back down. This is something both countries are likely to understand and use to their advantage. Equally, the US should be grateful and willing to return the favor.