China’s recent elevation of its claim to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) to a “core interest” has made the prospect of resolving its sovereignty dispute with Japan, which governs the islands, even trickier.
Indeed, the recent publication by the official People’s Daily of two Chinese academics’ commentary questioning Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa suggests that the Chinese authorities have scant interest in ending the dispute any time soon. So, with China hardening its multiple sovereignty claims throughout the South and East China seas, can any mechanism be found to resolve these conflicts peacefully?
Disputes over territorial sovereignty are perhaps the thorniest of all diplomatic disagreements. They can seem intractable because they are directly connected not only to national pride, but also to national security.
So it is no surprise that governments are usually reluctant to take even the smallest steps toward resolving such disputes. They fear not only domestic political backlash, but also the prospect that their adversary, or adversaries, will interpret a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness and thus become even more demanding.
The ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas — involving Taiwan, Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia — are particularly poisonous, because they also carry a heavy burden of historical grievance.
China associates its South and East China sea claims with the darkest period in its history — the “century of humiliation,” when foreign powers severely impinged upon its territorial integrity. Today, China’s extraordinarily rapid economic and political rise has disposed both its government and public to seek to redress old wounds from that period.
However, in today’s Asia, these countries’ behavior with respect to their sovereignty disputes and how they respond to others’ actions (and inaction) will have a decisive impact on regional security and prosperity.
Unless China demonstrates that it can live peacefully with its neighbors, its government’s claim that the international community has nothing to fear from the country’s growing power will be doubted.
Because bilateral talks run too great a risk of “lost face,” multilateral discussions probably offer the best prospect for resolution of East Asia’s sovereignty disputes. The problem is that China not only is unaccustomed to multilateral procedures, but that it recoils from them. China’s history has not prepared it to work within such a framework, and its yearning for status will make it difficult to gain Chinese acceptance of a multilateral solution.
As a result, China, which is particularly concerned to keep the US out of the negotiations, prefers to pursue bilateral talks, knowing full well that such an approach will invariably create a zero-sum game in which one side can be portrayed as protecting its national interest, and the other as having betrayed it.
China will need considerable convincing if it is to participate in a framework of regional policy consultation, coordination, and compromise aimed at muting the tensions over sovereignty disputes. However, unless China is brought into such a framework, its sense of isolation will grow.
Not surprisingly, given its own structures, the EU prefers the multilateral approach. Since 1995, when China occupied Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), a maritime feature also claimed by the Philippines, the EU has encouraged ASEAN to strengthen its code of conduct for the region.