In four point statements released concurrently between Japan and China on Friday, Tokyo appeared to cave on Beijing’s key demand that Japan recognize there is a territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Not so, a Japanese official tells The Diplomat.
“We did not give in to the Chinese demand of acknowledging the existence of a territorial dispute over the Senkakus,” the Japanese official tells The Diplomat by email.
The Japanese English-language translation of the statement reads: “Both sides recognized that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands.”
This sentence was crafted “very carefully written” the official explains. “We did not recognize any difference on our positions over the Senkakus, we acknowledged that we have different views of the cause of the tension” in the East China Sea.
Specifically, Japan believes that “Chinese provocative activities” are the cause of the tensions, while Beijing presumably blames the tensions on Japan. Regardless, the Japanese official writes, “sovereignty is not mentioned precisely” to avoid giving the impression that Japan is recognizing China’s claim of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing refers to as the Diaoyu Islands.
China apparently did not get the memo. Its English-language version of the statement reads: “The two sides have acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years over the Diaoyu Islands and some waters in the East China Sea [emphasis added].” The wording “different positions” appeared to imply that China and Japan have different positions on the issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Indeed, this interpretation is consistent with Xinhua’s report on the agreement, which states in the first sentence that Japan and China are “acknowledging different positions on the Diaoyu Islands.”
The decision to release separate, largely similar statements instead of a single joint one was likely designed to allow both sides to claim victory to their domestic audiences, while still paving the way for a thaw in bilateral ties. And the statements did indeed allow for President Xi Jinping and Prime Minster Shinzo Abe to meet for the first time at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing on Monday. Still, the fundamental issues between the two sides remain unresolved.
Regarding China’s motives for the recent thaw in Sino-Japanese relations, the Japanese official writes, “We know this is a tactical movement by the Chinese, and we do not know how long it will last. But a meeting [between Xi and Abe] will improve the atmosphere of the bilateral relationship, at least for the time being.”