Changes in political leadership in Beijing and Tokyo do not bode well for bilateral ties
Despite this, both sides recognise that the Senkaku/Diaoyu problem must be resolved as swiftly as possible so it does not hamper economic growth or lead to economic decoupling. There are three possible routes to resolving the issue: law, diplomacy and ‘doing nothing’. Unfortunately, the first option does not look likely. Both states view the legal option with ambivalence, and at worst hostility. Japan’s current position is to deny the existence of a territorial dispute, making this option impossible.
What, then, of diplomacy? The possibility exists of reviving a lapsed 2008 joint development agreement for energy resources in the waters adjacent to the islands. This agreement was built around a simple premise: that sovereign control of the islands is less important than the oil and gas fields beneath them, and that the territorial issue should be shelved to enable joint drilling on the Shirakaba/Chunxiao gas field. Yet there were problems with the 2008 agreement from the start. Chinese diplomats seemed unable to let go of the sovereignty issue and, during negotiations with their Japanese counterparts, insisted that the agreement applied to Chinese waters and should therefore be subject to Chinese law.
A second problem was that the main assumption underlying the 2008 agreement — that the issue underpinning the dispute was actually the sharing of energy resources — is incorrect. As anti-Japanese demonstrations in Chinese cities have revealed this year, the dispute is also closely linked to questions of pride and identity. Chinese media outlets conflate Japanese control of the islands with Japanese aggression during the Second World War, making any sort of compromise — such as the one offered by the 2008 agreement — deeply unpopular with the public and other interested parties.
The third problem with the 2008 agreement is that it does not deal with strategic issues surrounding the territorial dispute. The main argument against the agreement in Beijing, for example, was presented by the navy, which is charged with defending China’s periphery, and which views the islands as the starting point of the first island chain.
So how should Chinese and Japanese leaders proceed? The approach taken by both countries to date has been to avoid disturbing the status quo. For China, this has meant not attempting to take the islands by force; for Japan, it has meant not building military defences on the islands. The problem with this approach is that the status quo is easily disturbed. Even the actions of discrete individuals can push events to crisis point. Both the September 2010 and April 2012 crises were caused by patriotic, misguided individuals: a Chinese fishing boat captain who collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels around the islands in the first instance; and the governor of Tokyo announcing plans to purchase the islands, which eventually led to the central government’s purchase in September, in the second.
Despite these dangers, a policy of ‘doing nothing’ could yet work if both Tokyo and Beijing decided that the pursuit of economic interests warranted a calming in tensions, and committed to taking a number of key steps to promote this. The first could comprise the enforcement of a media blackout on all events relating to the islands. A key reason that individuals can affect events to such an extent is that extensive media coverage stirs up patriotism among the general public. A second step could be for both states to hand responsibility for the islands to their respective coast guards, and to gradually limit the number of actors involved in issues relating to the disputed waters. This would require Beijing to restrict access to vessels belonging to its State Oceanic Administration and to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries, both of which patrol these waters aggressively. Together, these steps could prevent a range of actors from advancing the dispute, and could make confidence-building measures possible.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are a microscopic part of the geopolitical map. Yet the islands have become symbols both of the past and the future. For China, they represent past injustice and aggression, the splitting off of Taiwan from the mainland and a reassertion of Chinese identity and strength. For Japan, the islands represent the future: an uncertain downgrading of its position vis-à-vis its colossal, newly awakened neighbour. The islands also give a hint as to China’s future approach to the region: particularly whether Beijing will continue to pursue its policy of a peaceful rise, or whether, like many previous rising powers, it will use its new powers to extend control over its periphery.
John Hemmings is a non-Resident Fellow at Pacific Forum, CSIS, and a doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics.