The festering dispute between China and Japan over the five uninhabited Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which Taiwan also claims, could spin out of control unless the countries improve their communication with each other, according to a confidential report submitted to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week by a delegation of former US officials.
The bipartisan four-person delegation met last week with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), who is expected to replace Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), and both countries’ foreign ministers. The US group warns Clinton in its written report that, while neither side wants a confrontation, a mistake or miscalculation could escalate into a military face-off.
Members of the delegation described their findings on the condition of anonymity, because their meetings and the report are confidential.
Clinton dispatched the mission in an effort to assess ways to reduce mounting tensions in light of Japan’s nationwide elections next year, an imminent leadership change in China and rising nationalist rhetoric in both Asian countries over the islands in the East China Sea. The five islands are called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and are surrounded by undersea oil and natural gas fields.
The delegation was composed of both Democrats and Republicans. Clinton sent a bipartisan delegation to signal to China and Japan that both political parties support the US position on the islands, so its report would carry weight with whomever wins the US presidential and congressional elections, according to members of the group.
They plan to report to Clinton that surprisingly poor communications and serious misunderstandings between China and Japan increase the risk that the territorial dispute could escalate if their ships collide or there is some other mishap, delegation members said.
Their report says China and Japan need to improve communication at a variety of levels, from heads of state down to the local coast guard commanders whose vessels are patrolling in the vicinity of the islands.
Japan issued a protest this week when four Chinese patrol boats entered the waters near the disputed islands, after officials of the two countries met last week in Shanghai in an attempt to improve relations.
In their meetings in both nations, the US delegation members said, they encountered differing reactions from officials and from analysts affiliated with the government toward the US effort to help defuse the dispute.
While some Chinese officials grumbled, Chinese analysts had harsher reactions, with some accusing Japan and the US of trying to overturn the outcome of World War II. That, one delegate said, was echoed by what he called rude remarks by Chinese Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan (任海泉) in Australia this week.
Addressing a high-level military conference in Melbourne, Ren, vice president of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, called Japan a former fascist nation that had bombed the northern Australian city of Darwin and said territorial disputes could trigger open war, according to the Australian newspaper and two attendees at the meeting.