The guessing game continues as to how meaningful discussions were yesterday between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ meeting in Beijing.
Prior to the summit, a handshake is about the only thing the two sides were willing to guarantee. Both sides professed a willingness to meet, but China made it clear that an extended conversation would only occur “under the right conditions.”
These conditions were clearly spelled out by Beijing: First, a pledge by Abe to stop visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors, among 2.5 million others, the spirits of 14 World War II “Class A” war criminals. Second, an acknowledgment by Tokyo that the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus to Japan — occupied and administered by Japan, but claimed by China (and Taiwan), are indeed disputed territory.
The Abe administration made it clear that the prime minister, as a matter of conscience, is not prepared to publicly announce that he would forego future visits to Yasukuni Shrine, but several of his emissaries have reportedly provided private assurances to the Chinese suide that he would refrain from future visits. Washington and Seoul would be equally pleased if this is true. Abe’s visit to the shrine in December last year resulted in a public expression of “disappointment” from Washington and considerably stronger admonitions from Beijing and Seoul.
The island dispute is more problematic. In an era when legal opinions trump strategic thinking, no leader seems prepared to acknowledge the existence of a dispute over territory currently under his nation’s control. Beijing, while insisting that Tokyo admit a dispute exists over the East China Sea islands, is equally adamant that no dispute exists when it comes to the Paracels [Xisha Islands, 西沙群島] — seized by China from Vietnam by force in 1974 — while claiming that all islands, reefs, and rocks within their infamous “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea are “indisputably” Chinese territory.
Likewise, Russia and South Korea claim respectively that the so-called Northern Territories (southern Kuriles) and Dokdo (called Takeshima by Japan), are indisputably theirs, even though Tokyo lays claim to both. Moscow in the past has at least been willing to discuss the issue with Tokyo, although the current Ukraine situation has made a summit between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin problematic.
When it comes to the Diaoyutais, China claims that the two nations agreed in the 1970s to shelve the dispute for future generations to resolve; Beijing said it would like to put the issue back on the shelf (once Tokyo acknowledges the dispute). Beijing also blames the nationalization of three of the islands in 2012 as the source of the current problem.
However, Tokyo said that Chinese fishing boats and government escorts have been increasingly assertive in the East China Sea since 2010, culminating in the ramming of a Japanese Coast Guard ship by a drunken Chinese fishing boat captain in September of that year.
Tokyo also said (with some justification) the 2012 nationalization of three of the islands was aimed at preserving, not changing the “status quo” and that the purchase was necessary to keep the islands out of the hands of right-wing nationalists who would have started erecting structures on the currently vacant islands. In truth, prior to 2012, four of the five islands were in private Japanese hands and one was under government control. Now, four are owned by the government and one is private; the ratio changed, but the overall status did not; all five were under Japanese administrative control before and all remain under Japanese administrative control now.
Despite all the above, a grand bargain still appears possible which would allow both sides to put the issue back on the shelf, assuming both are willing to accept a win-win solution that trades a de facto admission by Japan that the islands are in dispute for an acknowledgement by Beijing that the islands are today under Tokyo’s administrative control.
I would suggest that Abe, prior to going to APEC, should have made the following statement:
“The government of Japan recognizes that many territorial disputes exist in our region and around the world. Japan has foresworn the use of force in settling such disputes and we call on our neighbors to show the same level of restraint. We believe that both the Northern Territories and Takeshima/Dokdo rightfully belong to Japan, but acknowledge that they are today under the control of Russia and the Republic of Korea [ROK] respectively, and that we must peacefully resolve these disputes without the use or threatened use of force. We also recognize that the People’s Republic of China believes, in our view without basis, that the Senkakus, which the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands (釣魚島), are Chinese territory, but we call on Beijing to likewise acknowledge and respect the fact that they are today clearly and indisputably under Japanese administrative control and to renounce the use or threaten use of force in dealing with this issue. We urge Beijing to follow the example of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and place this issue back on the shelf for future generations to resolve.”
Beijing could then have chosen to interpret the Abe statement as an acknowledgement that a dispute and prior agreement both exist, and welcome Abe’s statement as an important first step in shelving the dispute, while agreeing to open up discussions on sharing fishing rights in the area — as Japan has already done with Taiwan. This would have opened the door for a Xi-Abe summit to talk about larger issues, rather than a few disputed islands.
As an added benefit, such a statement would have provided additional reassurance that Japan would not use force against Dokdo.
An appropriate Blue House response would have been: “In the ROK’s opinion, Dokdo is indisputably Korean territory, but we applaud Abe’s acknowledgment that the islands are under ROK control and his nation’s continued commitment to a peaceful resolution of disputes. We urge all parties to show similar restraint in dealing with territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea.”
This would have put additional pressure on Beijing to follow Japan’s example and refrain from confrontational actions at sea around the Diaoyutais and hopefully in the South China Sea as well.
However, Abe gave much less away before the APEC meeting, telling the Japan Times: “My wish is to improve Japan-China relations, and that wish hasn’t changed since 2006, during my first administration.”
After the meeting with Xi yesterday, Abe told Japanese media: “I asked him that we implement a maritime communication mechanism, and I think we’ll start working on concrete steps toward it.”
However, a Japanese official said the islands had not been discussed in the meeting, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency. The Chinese government did not comment on the meeting, begging the question of how much was really achieved in the meeting, and what progress, if any, has been made.
Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS.
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