Something to Talk About in the East China Sea
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Something to Talk About in the East China Sea


The diplomatic stand off between China and Japan over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands has entered its third week without any signs of de-escalation.  Positions on both sides have hardened.  Each government has released detailed accounts of the bases for their claims (China, Japan).  Talks earlier in the week between diplomats in Beijing yielded only an agreement to keep talking.  The atmosphere of a meeting in New York between foreign ministers Yang Jiechi and Koichiro Gemba was described as “severe.”

The September 10 statement issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs contained China’s key demand at the moment.  It stated that Japan should “come back to the very understanding and common ground reached between the two sides” and “return to the track of negotiated settlement of the dispute.”

What does this mean?  China believes that in talks with Japanese officials involving Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, agreements or understandings were reached that the islands were disputed but that any effort to resolve their conflicting positions would be deferred to achieve more pressing tasks, especially the normalization of relations in 1972 and the conclusion of a peace treaty in 1978.

Japan’s position, however, is that there is nothing to discuss.  As Prime Minister Noda stated in New York, “So far as the Senkaku Islands are concerned, they are an inherent part of our territory, in light of history and international law. It's very clear. There are no territorial issues as such, therefore there could not be any compromise that may mean any set back from this basic position.”

Such a position – denial of a dispute – is not uncommon in conflicts over territory.  When one side controls all of the territory being contested, it often states that there is no dispute.  South Korea, for example, claims that there is no dispute over the Dokdo / Takeshima Islands, which are also claimed by Japan.  Likewise, China maintains that there is no dispute over the Paracel archipelago, which Vietnam claims.

Why, then, does China believe that there is something to talk about?  Documentary evidence is scant.  Neither side has released transcripts of meetings between leaders when the islands were discussed.  Nevertheless, authoritative party history sources from China sources reveal why Beijing maintains that there was a shared understanding in the past.    

In 1972, Zhou Enlai and Takeiri Yoshikazu (leader of the Komeito party) appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus in talks that would be held to normalize relations between the two countries.  In a recent book, Seton Hall scholar Yinan He cites a collection of documents on Chinese-Japanese relations: in July 1972, Zhou told Takeiri, “There is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands. It does not count a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal relations [between the two countries].”   A Japanese magazine article earlier this month contains a similar account.  Thus, from China’s point of view, the decision not to discuss the dispute at the time was a recognition that a dispute did exist.

Similarly, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and the Japanese Foreign Minister also appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus at a later time.  A chronology or nianpu of Deng’s activities published by a party research office summarizes a meeting between Deng and Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda.  According to the book, Deng stated: “It's not that China and Japan do not have any problems. For example [there are] the Diaoyu Island and continental shelf issues. Don't drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way.”

(The original Chinese is: “中日之间并不是没有任何问题。 比如钓鱼岛问题,大陆架问题,这样的问题。现在不要牵进去,可以摆在一边,以后从容地讨论,慢慢地商量一个双方都可以接受的办法。我们这一代找不到办法,下一代,再下一代会找到办法的。”)

To be clear, these Chinese source materials only show why China maintains that an understanding existed in the past.  Full transcripts of these meetings have not been released.  How Takeiri and Sonoda responded to Zhou and Deng is unknown.  Nevertheless, they appear to acknowledge the presence of a dispute.  At the same time, there’s no record that Zhou or Deng contested directly Japan’s actual control of the islands then, either. 

Other parties, notably the United States, also view the islands as disputed.  The United States recognizes Japan’s administration of the islands, which it transferred in 1972, and that the islands fall under the mutual defense treaty.  Nevertheless, as both Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have emphasized recently, “the United States doesn’t take a position on competing sovereignty claims” over the islands.  Moreover, the U.S. position on the dispute is not new.  Before the transfer, the State Department’s take in 1971 was that “the U.S. passes no judgment as to conflicting claims over any portion of them, which should be settled directly by the parties concerned.”

At the moment, China and Japan stand at a diplomatic impasse.  Yet China’s September 10 statement retains sufficient ambiguity for creative diplomats to define the “common ground” between the two sides in order to restore stability in the dispute.  For example, Japan could state that although its sovereignty over the islands is “indisputable,” it recognizes that, in practice, other claims exist.  If China and Japan want to move forward, they will need to find a way to shelve the dispute again.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

Filipino defender
October 3, 2012 at 03:42

You mean china because as far as accepted history does the Philippines and Vietnam has no history of being a colonial empire. In fact my country and the viets are victims of colonial takeovers as for china you been making wars since your country foundation so who would believe you? stealing lands really? since when?

John Chan
October 3, 2012 at 00:41

Only the Philippines and Vietnam encroach other nation’s land with force, then whining to hold on their illegal gain with laughable statements of “historic evidences” and “greedy entitlement.”
The world does not work that way, there is rule called Principle of Reciprocity, if the Philippines and Vietnam cannot keep their illegal stealing then it is not theirs, no matter what their excuses  are.
Protesting others using the same means they used themselves is not fair and selfish.

October 2, 2012 at 11:21

@ ACT,
Well said. By china's logic, Mongolia and Manchuria can claim all of china. Britain and Japan can claim parts and smaller neighbors such as Vietnam and Korea can claim their old land that china/chinese took by invasion. You guys would not like that, right china/chinese? Now you know how everyone feel about your ridiculous and laughable statements of "historic evidences"

October 2, 2012 at 03:26

as i said in an earlier article, when the CPC is under threat, it will use an outside enemy to justify its rule via territorial sovereignty. Case in point is this paper: The Diaoyutai Islands on Taiwan’s Official Maps: Pre- and Post-1971 (Asian Affairs: An American Review, 39:90–105, 2012) by Ko-hua Yap, Yu-wen Chen, and Ching-chi Huang. While the paper is on taiwan's claim, the PRC makes its claim via taiwan, and thus their claim can be thought of as equally illegitimate; the summary of this paper is:
"This research report is the first to present irrefutable evidence of the ROC government’s change of position from excluding to including the Diaoyutai Islands in the ROC’s territory in the early 1970s. The evidence lies in cartographic information produced by the ROC government before the 1970s, which had always tacitly assumed that the Diaoyutai Islands were part of the Ryukyu Islands, not under the ROC’s sovereign control. Not until 1971 and 1972 did the Taiwanese government modify official maps—such as national atlases, military topographic maps, and maps in national textbooks—labelling the Diaoyutai Islands as part of Taiwan or using the “Taiwanese name” (i.e., Diaoyutai Islands, Tiaoyutai Islets) to identify these islands.".
So, first irrefutable proof that the Chinese have modified their maps to make illegitimate claims to territories that are rightfully owned by others.
so, why are so many westerners and asiatics scrambling to justify this illegitimate claim to the senkakus in articles of authors such as HanYi Shaw, who states that:

…Many Chinese scholars have argued that when evaluating the various historical evidence put forth by the Chinese side, one must not fail to recognize the important political realities of the time from which they originated, namely, an era characterized by the East Asian World Order (otherwise known as the Chinese World Order).

The underlying concern is the following: whether principles of modern international law, which has its origin in the European tradition of international order, can properly judge a territorial dispute involving countries historically belonging under the East Asian World Order with fundamentally different ordering principles from its European counterpart. First and foremost, it should be noted that the East Asian World Order was a system of international relations characterized as Sinocentric and hierarchical rather than one based on sovereign equality of nations. Under such a framework, relations between nations were not governed by principles of international law known to the West, but instead by what is know as the "tributary system" instituted by China.

. interesting; while this part was left out of Shaw's NYT article, he is effectively saying that China's past use of the Tributary system justifies its claims over the isles, and that China can effectively side-step international law as a result.

Since i am of a mind with Michael Turton, let me paraphrase him:

"if Greece were to claim parts of the middle east and India, if Italy were to try to claim the territory of the former Roman Empire, if Turkey were to try to claim the territory of the ottoman empire, or Britain were to attempt to claim its old empire, we would all recognize these claims for the shams they are, but because of China's history, we are willing to exoticize it, and accept its anachronistic and blatantly expansionistic claims as truth." to quote him directly:

It looks like Shaw claims that there are Chinese scholars arguing that if China says someone paid tribute to it at some point in history, China can determine the sovereignty in its favor. I doubt one can find many Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, Japanese, Thai, or Vietnamese scholars to support this. It is hard to imagine a mindset more self-serving and expansionist than this. Imagine if the NYTimes column had been fronted by this nonsense. Instead, Shaw cleverly frames it as an attack on Tokyo's position rather than an announcement of his own with copious evidence, maps, and charts.

One of the ways that westerners exoticize China is that we accept these completely laughable, simpleminded, and historically inaccurate and anachronistic claims, whereas if Italy demanded the Mediterranean and France based on Rome, or Ankara was claiming the entire North African seaboard, Bulgaria, and Saudi Arabia based on the Ottomans, or the Macedonians wanted a chunk of India because Alexander once battled there, everyone would immediately realize how fantastically archaic this kind of thinking is. There is no "East Asian World Order"; that is merely a modern Chinese fantasy retrojected into the past to bolster up modern Chinese expansionist claims.


so, how does this all fit into the supposed decline of the CPC? as i mentioned before, The legitimacy of the CPC rests on economic improvement and territorial integrity, no matter how weak or flimsy the evidence for those claims. If it cannot fufill these in peace time, it will fufill them in wartime.

September 30, 2012 at 07:39

Don't forget Taiwan (ROC).  Taiwan is not happy these days, either.  They are being denied their fair rights to the disputed area for too long.  Both Japan and China take their actions without consulting Taiwan first.  The issue won't rest until Taiwan is happy.

Bill Church
September 29, 2012 at 17:38

The article doesn't shed any light on why the topic generates such heat at this time, with protests, trade embargoes and hacking of websites. Its not really about the islands at all is it?

September 29, 2012 at 14:01

Of course there has.  In fact just China itself has many of them.  In the 90's China had territory disputes with just about all the dozen or so countries it bordered.  Now, only the diputes with India and Bhutan are still unresolved and we all know China hasn't been in an armed conflict since the 80's.  In this process, China took a net loss of territory.

Action Not Talk
September 29, 2012 at 13:39

Why waste time talking?  Send in the troops.

Leonard R.
September 29, 2012 at 09:47

This is what the ICJ is for.  Beijng can go to court or go to war.

Tom Tran
September 29, 2012 at 07:23

I wonder has there been an example where one party gave up territtory claim to another party without some sort of fight? Even if one lost the fight (Falkland), it still holds on claims. Admitting a dispute means admitting that there must be a compromise on territory – in this case Japan has to give up its controlled islands. This is the worst advice I have ever heard. I don't think that Japan is that naive. An analogy: this house is mine, but I admit that I may not be the sole owner. Then there is a disater to come, since there couldn't be any solution that satisfies China except giving up the whole thing.

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