While tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands continue to simmer, a new dimension has seemingly been added to the mix.
In an article written for the People's Daily on Wednesday– widely considered the "mouthpiece " of China's government — two academics, Zhang Haipeng and Li Guoqiang, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, appear to call into question Japan's sovereignty over the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa is part of this island chain).
The authors note that “Unresolved problems relating to the Ryukyu Islands have reached the time for reconsideration.”
There could be a small problem with the authors idea, regardless of any sort of historical debate on who owns the islands — Okinawa is home to a large American military presence and Japan has held the islands for sometime.
On Wednesday, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the piece in the People's Daily "injudicious." On Thursday, Tokyo filed a diplomatic protest.
So far, the Chinese government has not exactly endorsed the idea, thankfully.
The New York Times, quoting a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, answered several questions concerning the issue but as the Times noted, did not "take a clear position on sovereignty."
“The history of the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa has long been an academic problem,” Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying explained. “I’m willing to reiterate here that the Diaoyu Islands are China’s inherent territory, and have never been part of the Ryukyu or Okinawa.”
While China did not back the article, the trend lines here are certainly not good. Such an inflammatory piece at a time of heightened tensions between the world's number two and three economies makes little sense. The article, considering the content, would have presumably been green lighted by the censors who control China's press. Surely, it stands to reason, they would have surmised that the piece would only make matters worse, and not opened some sort of high minded academic debate over the historical nature of who owns the Ryukyus.
In fact, quite the opposite needs to happen at this point. If both parties wish to ease tensions and return to something approaching the prior arrangement of not allowing conflicting territorial claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to damage bilateral ties, simple steps must be taken — by both sides.
For starters, it would make sense to keep any military or non-naval maritime vessels or aircraft out of the area surrounding the islands. So both sides can save face, this could be done discretely. Not every move needs to be completed with a press release. This would greatly limit the possibilities of an accidental collision on the high seas or in the air. Such an incident would make matters infinitely worse.
Next, both sides need to limit unhelpful statements — official or close to it — that only inflame tensions. Nationalistic talk on either side, whether about island claims or revisionist historical concepts do no one any good. While many would argue such talk is meant for domestic consumption, it nonetheless carries global ramifications. In an era where social media and a 24 hour news cycle repeats such talk over and over, both parties must be very careful in choosing their words. In this case, both sides simply keeping quiet on the issue could prove a powerful way to ease tensions.
Lastly, a path forward needs to be sketched out where both sides can enter into a sustained dialogue. Hopefully, this is already happening through back channels. Such talks need to be done in private — away from domestic audiences and the media. Track 1.5 and 2.0 conferences could be a good place to start.
Dialogue is the only way both sides can come to an agreement, or at least attempt to return to the prior gentlemen's agreement to leave the issue to future generations. Neither side has any logical reason to keep escalating tensions, let's hope Tokyo and Beijing see it that way as well.