In late January, Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of Japan’s New Komeito Party, a junior party in Japan’s coalition government, made a successful trip to Beijing. During the visit, he handed a letter penned by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平).
This exchange offered a glimmer of hope in the increasingly tense relations between Japan and China.
However, just as the two sides were circling each other like wary combatants, tensions over sovereignty claims concerning the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku in Japan — took another turn for the worse, rising to the point that the slightest misstep by either party could trigger a crisis.
Last month, Japan accused the Chinese navy of using its weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer. Then, Chinese fishing boats and fighter jets entered the waters and air space around the islands, and the People’s Liberation Army deployed tanks and guided missiles along China’s southeastern coast.
At this sensitive juncture, Japan is keen to shore up links with the US, carrying out large-scale island invasion military drills with the US Army in California and with Abe visiting the US recently.
There was considerable interest in what assurances US President Barack Obama gave Abe during his visit.
Every step in this new round of activity between China and Japan involves strategic considerations.
Following Abe’s visit to the US, both sides have been upping the ante and making sure their voices are heard, but also with the intention of increasing their own bargaining power for the next round of negotiations over the disputed islands.
Japan’s revelations of China’s use of weapons-targeting radar were meant to show that the threat represented by China had gone up a notch, in the hope that the US would do something to help Tokyo deal with the situation in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s very vocal objections were meant to limit any US-Japanese military cooperation on protecting the Diaoyutais.
It is now too late for Washington to unilaterally control the situation, given the way the Diaoyutai issue has developed.
Even if Obama succeeded in convincing Abe not to make further provocative moves, this would do little to dissipate current tensions.
Over the past five months or so, China has managed to turn around from a position of weakness and installed “permanent” patrols of the waters near the Diaoyutais.
In other words, persuading the Chinese to withdraw their ships and fighters to beyond 12 nautical miles (22km) of the Diaoyutais is not only crucial to alleviating the crisis, but is also central to Sino-Japanese talks on the issue.
The problem is what conditions can Japan offer to convince China to step back?
Beijing is still insisting that Japan “remedies its errors,” saying that Tokyo’s “nationalization” of three of the islands in the group had changed the “status quo” and violated an agreement between previous generations of Japanese and Chinese leaders to set aside the issue and let future generations deal with it.
However, it is highly unlikely that the Abe administration will accede to this. Not only is the transaction already a fait accompli, but any attempt to return to the previous “status quo” would be technically unfeasible and result in a loss of face.
In addition, the Japanese government believes that buying the islands from the private owner was the best option at the time to maintain the “status quo.”
On the other hand, if Japan’s retracting the nationalization of the islands could convince China not to send ships and fighters within 12 nautical miles of the Diaoyutais, this could be a technically viable option for Japan to redeem the situation.
It could transfer ownership rights from the national level to a prefectural level, under the Ryukyu Islands of Okinawa Prefecture.
There is also the option of returning the ownership rights to private hands — obviously not to the Kurihara family, from whom the government bought three of the islands last year — but to a private body or institution.
However, this is not likely to happen once the two sides return to the negotiating table: The Japanese are unlikely to want to be seen dancing to China’s tune and “remedying their errors,” and are more likely to want to talk around the “nationalization” issue for a time.
On the eve of Yamaguchi’s visit to Beijing, he suggested that neither party send fighters into the air space around the Diaoyutais.
The Chinese have yet to respond, while Abe said that “whether Japan sends fighters to the Senkakus is Japan’s business alone.”
Since Abe has left the possibility open, deciding not to send fighters to that area is one relatively simple way for the two parties to reach a compromise in the interest of dissipating the crisis.
The trouble is that, regardless of which side first brings this concrete suggestion to the negotiating table, and even if it leads to a compromise that both sides find acceptable — conjuring up the illusion that there is no sovereignty crisis — it will be very difficult for them to translate this into an official written consensus, and it would most likely be nothing more than another tacit mutual understanding.
It goes without saying that without documentation to back it up, any agreement is precarious at best, although history is replete with examples of effective agreements on foreign relations based on little more than mutual trust.
In 1972 then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) and then-Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka agreed to put the Diaoyutai sovereignty issue on the back burner.
Four decades later Japan is still keeping to what I term the “three noes principle” — no military deployment on the islands, no development of land resources on the islands and no development of resources in the surrounding waters — based on this original understanding.
If the two sides can come to an agreement on principles governing air space, they can move on to secure a similar agreement on ocean-going vessels in the area.
China and Japan need to come up with a new understanding to help resolve the crisis and deal with the many challenges ahead. They need to rebuild some degree of mutual trust.
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) said the Diaoyutais issue should be left to later, wiser generations to find a solution to the problem.
Now the time is upon the new generation of leaders in China and Japan — and to an extent those in Taiwan, too: It is a test of their wisdom. Beijing concedes that the islands are part of the island group that includes Taiwan, but Taiwan has been relegated to playing a bit part in the drama.
When Taiwanese coast guard vessels escorted the Quanjiafu fishing boat to the islands on a “protect the Diaoyutais” mission, it was described by the US and Japan as provocative behavior.
It is not difficult for Taiwan to increase its visibility in this situation.
The point is how can the nation accurately assess the respective positions and strategic thinking of Japan, China and the US.
John Lim is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper