Doubling Down in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands?
Image Credit: Al Jazeera English (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Doubling Down in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands?


High-ranking diplomats from China and Japan met in Shanghai recently to hold consultations over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands.  Zhang Zhijun, vice minister of foreign affairs, met with his counterpart, Chikao Kawai.  Details of the talks were not disclosed, but the continuation of consultations that started in September is important if the two sides seek to maintain stability in the East China Sea.

Just before the talks, however, both sides hardened their stances.  A diplomatic solution to the current standoff appears to be fading fast.

On October 19, China held a widely-publicized one-day maritime exercise involving naval and government vessels.  Dubbed “East Sea Coordination–2012,” the exercise simulated how China would respond to a collision between its government ships and “foreign law enforcement vessels” in which Chinese boats were damaged and personnel injured.  Vessels participating in the exercise came from the regional bureaus of the China Marine Surveillance force and the Bureau of Fisheries Administration.  In the exercises, naval ships provided protection and medical aid while government ships practiced search and rescue operations.  Photos and videos of the exercises, which occurred off the coast of Zhoushan Island in Zhejiang Province, circulated widely through the Chinese media.   

In the context of the Senkakus standoff, the purpose of the exercise was two-fold.  First, the exercise signaled to Japan China’s resolve to defend its “territorial sovereignty and maritime interests” with its diverse maritime assets.  Second, the scenario of a hypothetical collision of government vessels invoked the current situation around the disputed islands.  The message is clear: any incident involving a Chinese government ship could result in the use of naval forces and thus the escalation of the dispute.

At the same time, Japan has been seeking to build international support.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) posted on its website a pamphlet underscoring two aspects of Japan’s position.  First, the pamphlet countered China’s claims that the 1943 Cairo and 1945 Potsdam declarations dictated the disposition of Japanese territory after World War II.  It also underscored that the islands were incorporated into Okinawa in January 1895, before the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and thus not part of Taiwan and territories that Japan was required to relinquish after the war.

Second, the MOFA pamphlet challenged the notion that top Chinese and Japanese leaders had discussed the presence of a dispute over the Senkakus in the 1970s.  According to the pamphlet, “in the course of negotiations with China, Japan never recognized the existence of an issue to be solved on the territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.”  The pamphlet then provides excerpts from conversations between Zhou and Tanaka in 1972 and Deng and Fukuda in 1978.   Interestingly, the excerpts are shorter than those found in Chinese sources (here and here).  For example, the Japanese account of the Zhou-Tanaka talks omits Tanaka’s response to Zhou that the question of the Senkakus could be discussed after the normalization of relations.  As a result, Japan appears to be eliminating the option of using some acknowledgment of these past discussions as the basis of a diplomatic solution to the current standoff.

In sum, the two sides are talking.  Nevertheless, they are also hardening their positions.  As a result, a diplomatic breakthrough may be increasingly difficult to achieve in the short-term.  The dispute is poised to become a long-term thorn in the side of China-Japan relations.

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.

The actress formally known as John Chan
August 9, 2013 at 19:19

It isn't easy being Chinese. China has suffered and continues to suffer humiliation. China is due to overtake the the USA as the world's biggest economy and doesn't get the respect it deserves. Individually our GDP per capita may be less than Kazakistan and in the education index we may be below the Palestinian Authority. China ranks above Sudan and below Tunisia in corruption. This means nothing…

We are the most populous country in the world and collectively the mightiest people. Chinese exceptionalism dictates we are the best beacause this is what we are told. And this is what we tell the rest of the world.

November 1, 2012 at 00:33

No, it was not possible to rule out that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were war booties during the first Sino-Japan war. But it is perfectly logical to rule that, as a victorious party (the 2 Chinas) signing Friendship Treaties with the defeated party (Japan), if (both) China refused to discuss the ambiguity in the Postdam Declaration (that the defeated party accepted), then the issue was closed, for good. If it were not over, China(s) and Japan would still be in a state of unfinished war, legally speaking.

October 30, 2012 at 08:52

“It also underscored that the islands were incorporated into Okinawa in January 1895, before the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and thus not part of Taiwan and territories that Japan was required to relinquish after the war.” I know Japan annex Okinawa on Mar 25,1879, if this island is SO NATURAL belongs to  Japan, they should claim the island not 15 years later, besides, even it claim the island in January 1895, before the ink of Treaty of Shimonoseki,it is still DURING Sino Japan war ,w hich start from Jul 25,1894, can not rule out it's a gain from that war.

October 30, 2012 at 08:21

John Chan, please get some help, alcoholism and drug abuse is not good for you.

John Chan
October 29, 2012 at 22:20

Only aggressor Europeans do not respect other nation’s sovereignty, they will attack other nation with brutality even their citizens violate other nation’s sovereignty. American as born out the European is outdoing the European, there are bombing and killing victims by making out fake excuses such as mirage WMD.
The copycats Fascist Japanese, the Pinoy and Viets are behaving badly in Asia by following their former masters, their destructive behaviour must be reined in so that the peace and prosperity of Asia can be maintained. Reining Japan, the Philippines and the Vietnam is just part of the job to maintain peace and prosperity of Asia.
China is a responsible world stakeholder; it respects other nation’s sovereignty, so it will not act like the imperialist European, American and their lackeys. When fishing ships commit crimes, regardless the nation they belong to they must receive just punishment, just like the Spanish fishing ships were punished by Canada when they fished Atlantic Cod illegally near/at Grand Bank.  

October 28, 2012 at 16:40

I wonder why China never seem to respond when the Russians sink one of their fishing ships.
They might think they are strong enought to deal with Japan but somehow I think they might just made a miscalculation which might cost them dear.

October 27, 2012 at 13:50

I like the idea of ‘Long-term’ issue, it insinuates that diplomacy will be the way forward for the future, as oppsed to armed conflict. So, talk away. There is no timer, and we have all the time in the world, harden your stance, then soften your stance, whatever you like, just keep the diplomacy lines open.

October 27, 2012 at 03:39

typo: "He rightly said that the Chinese side REFUSED…"

October 27, 2012 at 03:20

Mr Fravel attempts to show that there is a dispute between China and Japan on the Daioyu/Senkaku sovereingty, by invoking the episode of the 1970s negotiations that resulted in the Friendship Treaty. I rightly said that the Chinese side REFUSED to discuss the matter.
But what does this shows. This shows that there MIGHT be a dispute BEFORE, but the Chinese decided to make it a non-issue in 1970s.
Indeed, what is the purpose of a Treaty between two countries after a war. It is to settle in legal terms, and for good, all disputes that existed before, during and after a war. If the losing party raises an issue and the winning party replies "I prefer not to discuss it NOW", it means that legally there is no more issue. This is because this is a TREATY, not a saloon talk.

John Chan
October 27, 2012 at 00:13

It seems Japanese is still living in the cloud of Cuckoo Land, they are still trying to justify their illegal encroachment of China territory by twisting facts and playing words, yet the Japanese arrogance and aggression invoke anti-Fascist Japanese in China is gathering momentum, people in China is creating all kinds of anti-Japanese militarism and imperialism materials to remind the Chinese government its duty to uphold the China’s honour and integrity, and warn the Chinese government not to repeat those mistakes made by the previous generations, like Yuan ShiKai, and Wang ChingWei, during the dying days of Qing Dynastic and before 1949.
Here is a video as an example of those anti-Japanese materials spreading in China,
If Chinese government ignores the demand of Chinese people seeking to redress the atrocities and war crimes the Japanese committed against China and Chinese, it probably is facing a force more threatening to its hold on power than LXB, Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, the western black information network or the predatory imperialist.

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