What to Talk About: Easing China-Japan Island Tensions
Image Credit: Flickr (Al Jazeera English)

What to Talk About: Easing China-Japan Island Tensions


China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Luo Zhaohui, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs, had made an unpublicized visit to Japan.  The purpose of his trip was to prepare for the next round of talks over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands at the vice ministerial level, similar to those held in late September. 

Overall, this is good news – talking is better than unilateral actions that might spiral out of control.  As I and others have suggested recently, China and Japan in these talks could revisit past discussions of the islands in the 1970s.  A formula might be crafted that would allow both sides to disengage from their irreconcilable positions.  China could claim that a “common understanding” with Japan had been re-affirmed.  Japan could maintain that the islands had been discussed in the past even though it believes that there is no dispute.  Quietly, China and Japan could also agree to refrain from unilateral actions in the waters around the islands.

What can else can Japan and China discuss that might help to enhance stability in the East China Sea?  Several options exist, even though some are less realistic than others.  Nevertheless, all options should be explored.

First, and more practically, Tokyo and Beijing could agree to start talks on how to share the resources in the waters around the islands, starting with fisheries.  Such an agreement would be the first step toward reducing the salience of sovereignty over the islands.  Moreover, it could be premised on an understanding that it would not affect each side’s claims to sovereignty.  Nevertheless, a resource-sharing agreement would allow for a modicum of trust to be built.  And it would remove one potential flashpoint that could create a real crisis – a clash involving fishermen. 

Furthermore, China and Japan have already demonstrated their capacity to reach this kind of a functional agreement.  They singed a bilateral fishing accord in 1997 (though it excluded the waters near the Senkakus), which can be updated and expanded.  In June 2008, the two sides concluded a “principled consensus” on natural gas exploration in the East China Sea.  The agreement noted explicitly they would conduct joint activities “without prejudicing their respective legal positions.”  In other words, economic cooperation would not weaken each other’s sovereignty or maritime boundary claims.

Second, Beijing and Tokyo could accelerate talks on establishing a high-level maritime consultative mechanism.  The first round of such talks was held in May 2012 and included representatives from the relevant agencies on both sides – foreign affairs, defense, and maritime law enforcement.  These talks could be integrated with an effort between the two militaries to enhance maritime communications, which so far has held two meetings at the working group level in 2008 and 2010.  They could also create hotlines and other risk management procedures between the Chinese and Japanese navies as well as relevant government agencies, such as the China Marine Surveillance force and the Japanese Coast Guard.

Finally, China and Japan could explore submitting this case to the International Court of Justice.  On its face, this is least likely.  Nevertheless, it merits consideration.  Japan need not abandon its position that there is no dispute.  China could seek to demonstrate the strength of its claims.  Moreover, it would take time – years – for the court to issue its ruling, creating a “cooling off” period.  When a ruling was reached, it would provide political cover accepting the final judgment.  Alternatively, they could simply announce their intention to submit the dispute to the court at an unspecified date in the future.

I’ve avoided assessing the plausibility that any of these agreements can be reached. Success requires diplomatic skill and political will, which both sides appear to lack at this time.  Nevertheless, talking remains better than the alternative.  

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.

John Chan
October 26, 2012 at 01:27

@Stefan Stackhouse,
China has done what you are proposing until Japan escalated its Fascist aggression by starting to prosecute Chinese fishermen who ventured near Diaoyu Islands with Japanese domestic law last year. It was the first step Japan wants to show who is the Master of Asia publically under the encouragement of USA’s pivoting to Asia-Pacific.
The Diaoyu incidents indicate the previous arrangement is not sufficient to guarantee that Japan will not disturb the peace and tranquillity of the area as a wildlife sanctuary; the amount of armed ships and aeroplanes Japan amassed nearby is the proof.
Perhaps a 50-miles (or whatever the scientists say) no-man zone around the Diaoyu Islands is a good idea for a wildlife refuges; but the way Japan launches its supersize Aegis and flattop destroyers it shows Japan has no intention to ease tensions in the area. After all Japan is an unapologetic war criminal.

John Chan
October 26, 2012 at 00:25

@Chamorro by blood,
You only can say you are giving the European version history of Guam, it is not the whole history of Guam that other civilizations know of. European occupying lands with force and atrocity over the objection of the natives does not qualify them legitimate ownership of those lands in the eyes of the natives and other civilizations; those disputed lands include Americas, Australia, Hawaii, and all archipelagoes in the Pacific Oceans.
If I were a Chamorro, I definitely will not say my homeland is discovered by an alien from a far away land, it will make me an illegal immigrant of my own homeland.

Oh, Yeah
October 24, 2012 at 07:36

“Giving is better then taking”!
It seems too difficult for these two nations: Japan and China to understand. Simply put it this way, if Japan gives up the Senkaku / Diaoyu Island, will Japan’s GDP suffer? Will Japanese people lost part of their income? Will Japan’s image in the world suffer? Or is the other way around? These same questions can be asked toward China, too.

Stefan Stackhouse
October 24, 2012 at 03:24

John Chan:
I am just curious: Given that nothing lives on these islands except a few birds and other animals, do you think that the PRC would be adverse to declaring that the islands themselves (the land part alone, that is) to be a wildlife sanctuary? If they would do so, I am wondering if the Japanese would be willing to do the same. If both countries were to see these islands as being a wildlife sanctuary, then would this not perhaps open the door to either setting to one side the territorial claims – as has been done with the Antarctic treaty – or else maybe even jointly administering the islands as an international wildlife refuge. East Asia is such a crowded part of the planet, there really is a need for a few wildlife refuges in that part of the world anyway. This could be a good opportunity to establish one, and to ease tensions a bit at the same time.

Chamorro by blood
October 23, 2012 at 07:51

Mr. John Chan, allow me to give you a brief history of the island of Guam since it appears you are clueless of it's history.  Guam was discovered by Spain in 1521 and sold to the US in 1898 after the Spanish American War.  There has never been any dispute as to who incorporated the island, even after WW2 when Japan was ousted from Guam.  Please stop using my island of Guam to support your CCP propaganda crap and learn your history from "REAL" history books instead of the ones made up by you communist masters.

John Chan
October 23, 2012 at 03:18

The original text is as following:
The Japanese source photo makes it smell fishy, and your assertion “Qing Dynasty clearly didn't recognized that the disputed ilsands were part of Taiwan.” is wrong and insidious, the whole thing smell like a perjury.

October 22, 2012 at 23:56

The distance from Keelung to the disputed islands is 190km, not 170km. 

October 22, 2012 at 23:39

Can anyone read Chinese? According to the, the Qing Dynasty had recognized that Taiwan used to belong to Japan and the north border of Taiwan is Keelung (Jilong). The distance from Keelung to the disputed islands is 170km. It clearly proves that the Qing Dynasty clearly didn't recognized that the disputed ilsands were part of Taiwan. Any thoughts?

I am
October 22, 2012 at 15:47

not interested in articles of this associated professor any more.

Uber Patriot
October 21, 2012 at 19:03

M. Taylor Fravel is just another liberal academic who does not understand that the US and China are on an inevitable path to nuclear annihilation.  Really, there is a book about it.  Why no just get it over with? Japan's claim to an island 100 miles away from Taiwan is as good a reason as any to start this.  So what if they took the islands when they took Taiwan and the US did not return them to China because the Cold War, this is really just nit-picking for people who are the political equivalent of vegetarians.  Let's make some meat!!

Unbias World Institutions?
October 20, 2012 at 17:16

Yes, Beijing should also do the same with Southern Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh).  Have the matter brought to the International Court of Justice.  Let the rule of law prevail.  According to the facts laid out by Mr Maxwell the learned author on the 1962 Indo-China war,  let the dice stay where it falls.  Beijing should have confidence.  History is most likely, also with them on this issue.  Seek wise, knowledgeable and honest barristers for this litigation.  Otherwise like Britain, send the troops in – to evict occupying Indian soldiers.  But if you want the world opinion to be on your side, letting the ICJ decide on this would be a wise decision. Just make sure the judges and jury are not bias towards to Washington or easily blackmailed or bought or armtwisted by Washington's agents or diplomats. 
If there is no confidence in world institutions like this because of Washington, then the world is doomed to WW III.  Thanks to imperial US.

Equitable Law
October 20, 2012 at 17:04

Its a waste of time.  Much as one would like to be optimistic, chances of this islands ownership being resolved is slim. Perhaps the best  solution is still the Internation Court of Justice – like how Malaysia and Singapore's dispute over Pedro Banca, and Malaysia-Indonesia's dispute over Pulau Sipadan and another island were resolved.  Otherwise like Ossetia and Abkhazia, let the tanks roll. 
There is probably a 60-40 chance of China winning the litigation.  Beijing should check with Singapore and Malaysia or else hire some well established barrister or lawyers on such dispute matter but check their background first before hiring them.  Washington's nefarious hands are everywhere.

John Chan
October 20, 2012 at 13:21

The author must be one of the Japanese hired hands to help Japan secure its illegitimate gain of China’s Daioyu Islands. He basically tells the Chinese government to accept the fact of Japanese government’s purchase of Daioyu Islands but beating the drum to cover up such traitorous act. In fact the author tells the Chinese officials to take a page from the way Yuan Shikai signed the Japan’s Twenty-one Demands to handle the Daioyu Islands crisis. If China cannot kick the Japanese out of Daioyu Islands, the Chinese leadership and those in negotiations with Japanese surely will be listed in the same category as Yuan Shikai in the Chinese history book.
Since the author is a fun of International Court of Justice, let’s submit the ownership ambiguity of Guam and Okinawa to the ICJ as a test case to see whether the USA can put its money where its mouth is. We also can line up the ownership disputes of Hawaii, California, etc. in the ICJ after the case of Guam and Okinawa too.

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