3 Principles for Resolving Territorial Standoff in Northeast Asia - Discuss Japan
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Diplomacy, No.12  Nov. 8, 2012

3 Principles for Resolving Territorial Standoff in Northeast Asia

Photo : Togo Kazuhiko

Togo Kazuhiko


There are three continuing territorial issues in the postwar era involving Japan. These are over the Northern Territories and the Takeshima islets which Japan has been seeking to take back from Russia and South Korea, respectively, and the Senkaku Islands which China and Taiwan want to take back from Japan.

Japan has been making all-out efforts to resolve the issue of the Northern Territories. The Takeshima and Senkaku problems, while they have different backgrounds, have never become central issues in Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.

But when South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited Takeshima on Aug. 10, 2012, it provoked outrage from the Japanese public. The landing of activists from Hong Kong on the Senkaku Islands on Aug. 15 gave rise to the feeling that the Chinese government was following the action behind the scenes, trying to create an outcome that would breach Japan’s effective control of the islands.

While negotiations over the Northern Territories continue to falter, it seems that the Takeshima and Senkaku issues have suddenly emerged as central problems in Japan’s relations with South Korea and China. If the countries concerned react in the wrong way, even the Takeshima problem, not to mention the Senkaku issue, could trigger a clash between maritime security authorities.

To avoid such a consequence and help the countries concerned in East Asia coexist with territorial disputes and reach final solutions in the future, I have proposed three principles that they should respect. (The first such proposal was at the Shanghai Forum of May 2011.)

1. Parties Seeking to Change Status Quo Should Refrain from Exercising Physical Force

The first principle is that parties wishing to change the status quo should refrain from resorting to military or physical force to carry through their assertions.

As far as the Senkaku Islands are concerned, the self-restraint required by this principle applies to China, as it is seeking to acquire the islands. For Takeshima and the Northern Territories, Japan needs to exercise restraint, as it is trying to change the current situation.

Let us analyze these situations.

China’s stance could cause real problems. It seems undeniable that China’s military and security policy is aimed at protecting and enhancing its political and economic interests, backed by its military power. For now, China appears to be focusing on an expansion of its naval power, with an eye to securing naval supremacy around the first island chain and then around the second island chain, in order to adopt a policy of rejecting other countries’ approaches to the islands.

The Senkaku Islands are strategically essential for China as they are located in the first island chain and form the group of islands closest to Taiwan. With Chinese vessels’ intrusion into Japan’s territorial waters on Dec. 8, 2008, and subsequent comments by spokespersons for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and China Marine Surveillance Headquarters, China clarified its stance of “building up actual achievements for effective control as needed.” It is fair to say that an approach of this kind has put an end to Deng Xiaoping’s proposal to “leave this issue to the wisdom of the next generation.”

Japan is at a crucial crossroads. While there is no doubt about Japan’s effective control, the question is what will happen if China builds up “actual achievements for effective control.” It is unlikely that Japan would silently tolerate China’s actions, and it should not do so. Eventually, therefore, an armed clash may become unavoidable.

The Japanese government is believed to have taken an appropriate defense policy of reinforcing the Maritime Self-Defense Force and promoting a southward shift since it underscored its dynamic defense capability in the “National Defense Program Outline” adopted in December 2010.

This would require China to stop its practice of resorting to force, at least as far as declaring its intention to seize the islands is concerned, and to make a decision to express it in another way, namely through negotiations.

Japan has neither the policy nor intention to take back the Northern Territories and Takeshima by the use of force. It is fair to say that such a stance, for better or worse, is a hallmark of the Japanese people, who experienced defeat in World War II and have since lived under a pacifist Constitution.

2. Parties in Effective Control Should Agree to Hold Talks

As the second principle, a party in effective control should prepare an occasion for talks where it can at least listen and reply to its opposing party’s claims.

I have long been involved in negotiations over the Northern Territories, and I can never forget the anger and sense of humiliation Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko caused Japan from 1978 to 1986 by saying the Soviet Union would not talk to Japan if the territorial question was raised.

The Soviet Union and the Russian Federation subsequently changed that stance. Since 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, up until today, there have been many twists and turns, including occasional cooling of negotiations, but the Soviet Union and Russia have in principle agreed to hold talks on the question of sovereignty with Japan.

Although Japan’s demand for the return of the four islands has not been met, the policy of holding talks on the question deserves substantial credit.

The Senkakus and Takeshima are under the effective control of Japan and South Korea, respectively, and the two countries maintain that they have no intention of holding talks on the question of sovereignty, on the grounds that officially there are no territorial disputes.

Japan’s refusal to discuss the Senkaku problem appears extremely risky. It is an unreasonable stance for Japan not to let the other party say all it wants to say, while refusing it “any entry at all” to the area.

I have already mentioned that Japan should build up its capacity to deter any force the other party may eventually use. At the same time, Japan should continue tenacious negotiations to prevent the other party from resorting to force.

All-out diplomatic efforts to prevent a war must be made whenever there is a risk of it. Japanese diplomats in the prewar era were well aware that a war could occur if their diplomatic work failed. Basically, they staked their lives on their work to prevent a war. Japanese people today tend not to understand this as a result of peace during the past 67 years.

The Japanese government should discuss the Senkaku issue with China without any preconditions. This might open the way for Japan and China to return to Deng Xiaoping’s approach to “leave this issue to the wisdom of the next generation.”

A direction of this kind is plausible as 89.2% of Chinese people and 61.7% of Japanese people in an opinion survey, jointly conducted by Japan and China in 2012, called for a solution through negotiations or a certain shelving of the issue.

On the Takeshima issue, South Korea should at least agree to hold talks with Japan as the islets are under its effective control.

In reality, however, it may be difficult to launch orderly, full-scale governmental negotiations over the Senkakus and Takeshima.

In order to overcome these hurdles one by one, a policy of starting analytical and objective talks involving private-sector researchers and the like is one option. Fortunately, we already have the seeds of such talks and a small but first step toward them was marked in 2011. Private-level talks of such a kind must be promoted hereafter.

3. Parties Should Pursue Wisdom to Avoid Clashes and Expand Cooperation

The third and last principle calls for both countries involved in a bilateral territorial dispute to offer their wisdom so that they can work out a mechanism to prevent any clashes.

As a step toward building a broad-based mutual trust, the Northern Territories problem, the sole territorial dispute subject to serious bilateral negotiations that have long continued in Northeast Asia, has ample precedents. Wide-ranging achievements under a series of accords between Japan and Russia, starting with an agreement signed in 1998 on fishing operations around the four islands and including Japanese visits to ancestors’ graves on the islands, exchanges between Japanese people and Russian residents there, humanitarian support and free visits, are expected to offer examples of reference for relations between Japan and China and Japan and South Korea.

There are also some precedents between Japan and China and between Japan and South Korea, namely fisheries agreements. Article 6 (b) of the new fisheries agreement concluded between Japan and China in 1997 specifies the area of waters around the Senkaku Islands and an official accessory document exchanged between the two governments permits the exercise of jurisdiction over fishing under the law of the flag doctrine.

For Takeshima, the new fisheries accord signed by Japan and South Korea in 1998 categorizes the central water area, which includes the islets, as “provisional waters,” allowing the two countries to exercise jurisdiction over their fishing boats. The accord is an example of wisdom adopted by the two governments. Unfortunately, the agreement has not been effectively carried out, but the implementation of it deserves serious consideration.

In Conclusion

What would happen if the three principles are faithfully practiced?

Negotiations on the Northern Territories between Japan and Russia would be least affected as the three principles basically have already been implemented in this context. I hope Japan, by making utmost efforts, will crack wide open the “window of opportunity” opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin and resolve the biggest pending problem between the two countries by reaching a certain practical agreement in their sovereignty negotiations.

The Takeshima question would be greatly affected. The ideal form for finding a solution, which is through dialogue, has now emerged as President Lee Myung Bak’s act has brought the essential nature of the problem to light. Although the point to be reached is still out of sight, the situation would undeniably move in a more healthy direction.

The Senkaku issue would also be greatly affected. Tension would subside for some time as a result of China’s restraint and Japan’s readiness to talk. But this problem still lies ahead and the two governments should prevent the issue from becoming a flash point and convert it into a symbol of cooperation.


Translation of an article written exclusively for Discuss Japan–Japan Foreign Policy Forum.