Territorial disputes have exacerbated these tensions significantly. China challenges Japanese control over more than 7km2 of islets in the East China sea called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu (釣魚) Archipelago in China. Known as the Diayutais in Taiwan, the islands are claimed by all three nations. While the rival claims date back to the late 19th century, the latest flare-up — which has included widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations in China — was triggered in September last year, when Japan’s government purchased three of the tiny islets from their private Japanese owner.
Then-prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said that he decided to purchase the islands for the Japanese central government to prevent then-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara from purchasing them with municipal funds. Noda feared that Ishihara, who was well-known for nationalist grandstanding, would try to occupy the islands or find other ways to use them to provoke China.
However, Chinese officials viewed the move as proof that Japan was trying to disrupt the “status quo.” Some even claimed that Japan was trying to reverse the territorial outcome of World War II.
The May 1972 transfer back to Japan of Okinawa, which the US had administered, included the Senkaku Islands. A few months later, when China and Japan were working to normalize relations, then-Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka asked then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) about the islets; Zhou responded that the dispute should be left to later generations, in order to avoid any delay of normalization.
As a result, both countries maintained their sovereignty claims. So, though Japan has administrative control, Chinese ships and planes frequently enter Japanese waters to assert China’s claim. While Japan’s security treaty with the US serves as a deterrent, there is always a danger of miscalculation.
A quick resolution of the Senkaku Islands dispute (or of Japan’s lower-profile conflict with South Korea over the islands known in Korean as Dokdo and Takeshima in Japan, which lie between the two countries) is improbable, but Japan could be more proactive. For example, by stating their willingness to take any territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice, Japanese authorities could help to dispel perceptions of militarism.
Furthermore, Japan should take the sovereign act of designating the Senkaku Islands as an international maritime preserve free of habitation or military use. China might not agree, but such a move might at least return the issue to the back burner, while reinforcing Japan’s image as a peaceful power.
Japan and Northeast Asia need bold initiatives that focus on the future. It is time to give history a rest.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate