China Power

Something to Talk About, Again

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China Power

Something to Talk About, Again

MIT’s Taylor Fravel gives an update on a possible way out of the current Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands stalemate.

Earlier, I wrote about why China believes that a past consensus existed with Japan over deferring resolution of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  A colleague recently alerted me to a new Chinese source that further illuminates the discussion of the issue during the talks on normalizing diplomatic relations in 1972 between Kakuei Tanaka and Zhou Enlai

The source is a recollection of the talks written by Zhang Xiangshan (张香山).  Having studied in Japan before 1949, Zhang served as an advisor to Zhou Enlai on Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s.  Zhang’s recollection is a credible source, as it was published fourteen years ago in an article in a Chinese academic journal, Japanese Studies (日本学刊) – well before the current escalation of tensions.

According to Zhang Xiangshan, Tanaka and not Zhou raised the issue at the end of their third meeting in September 1972.  Tanaka asked Zhou about China’s attitude was toward the islands.  Zhou responded that he “did not want to discuss the issue at this time, as it would not be useful (没好处).” 

Tanaka pressed further, stating that “it would create some difficulties” if he returned to Japan without mentioning the islands.  Zhou replied that “because oil had been discovered in the ocean there, Taiwan had made [the islands] into a big issue, now the United States is also making them into an issue.”

Tanaka: “Okay!  There’s no need to talk about it, we can discuss it later.” 

Zhou: “Let’s talk discuss it later.  Now we should grasp the basic issues that we can settle, such as first resolving the normalization of relations.  This is the most urgent issue.  Other problems should be discussed after some time has passed.”

Tanaka: “Once diplomatic relations are normalized, I believe that other problems can be resolved.”

Why does this exchange between Chinese and Japanese leaders from 1972 matter?  At the moment, China and Japan have staked out irreconcilable positions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  China wants acknowledgement of the “common ground reached between the two sides.”  Japan maintains no dispute exists and thus there is nothing to discuss, including any past exchanges on the islands in the 1970s.

Yet the Tanaka-Zhou talks suggest a way out.  Japan could acknowledge that the islands had been discussed and deferred without altering its claim to them.  China could view such as statement as acknowledging the past “common ground.”  Both sides could move on.  As Doug Paal suggests, if China rejected such a Japanese statement, then the “onus shifts to China” to de-escalate the situation.

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.