Japan, China Need To Manage, Contain Problems Over Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands | Discuss Japan-Japan Foreign Policy Forum
Discuss Japan > Back Number > No.12 > Japan, China Need To Manage, Contain Problems Over Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands
Diplomacy, KUDO_Yasushi, No.12  Nov. 8, 2012

Japan, China Need To Manage, Contain Problems Over Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands

Photo : Kudo Yasush

Kudo Yasushi

(The following speech was given by Mr. Kudo at the Council of Councils’ Asia Regional Conference held in Singapore on Oct. 31, 2012)

I would like to briefly express my thoughts on how we can achieve a peaceful solution to the Senkaku Islands issue (Diaoyu in Chinese), which is becoming a source of grave conflict between Japan and China.

Let me clarify my basic stance on this matter. This statement expresses my personal opinions and does not represent the Japanese government’s official position. But the aim of my statement is same as the government’s position in that we are keen to resolve the Senkaku Islands issue.

As you know, it is the official position of the Japanese government that the Senkaku Islands are under the effective control of the Japanese government and that there exists no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved concerning them.

I agree with the Japanese government that the Senkaku Islands are Japan’s territory. But I do not think that there have never been problems over territorial claims. There is a tension over the islands due to China’s sovereignty claims over the islands. And now, Japan faces the common problem confronting the countries involved in the South China Sea of seeking a peaceful solution to the standoff without resorting to arms and provocation.

Peaceful Solution Based On International Law

To start with my conclusion first, I believe that China should take the case to the International Court of Justice if it insists on the legitimacy of its sovereignty claim over the Senkaku Islands to the international community.

On the issue of the territorial dispute over Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean) between Japan and South Korea, the Japanese government decided to file such a suit. It should be a fundamental and universal rule to seek a peaceful solution to these territorial issues on the basis of international law.

In his speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations this fall, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda explained Japan’s basic stance on the matter. Should China take the case to the International Court of Justice, Japan should comply with the proposal by altering its conventional position.

However, I do not expect China is going to do so for three reasons. First, China’s position is not one that seeks a solution based on international law to the Senkaku issue, as is the case with the territorial problems in the South China Sea. It is also open to question whether Beijing could effectively suppress China’s rising nationalism. Finally, China also apparently doubts that the issue could be solved at the ICJ. For these reasons, it would be difficult to seek a solution to the Senkaku problem in the short term.

My biggest concern is that the conflict between Japan and China, economic superpowers, will pose the risk of grave effects on peace and development in this region, and have a decisive influence on the world economy.

What We Need To Do Is Contain Senkaku Issue

If such should be the case, the immediate and pressing challenge concerning the Senkaku issue is to manage the conflict and to isolate the problem from Japan-China relations as a whole.

Recently, we, The Genron NPO, conducted an opinion survey on the Senkaku issue, covering 500 Japanese opinion leaders. The poll found that only 20 percent of the respondents welcomed the government’s purchase of the islets. Including those who thought the purchase was unavoidable, slightly over 50 percent of the respondents were in support of the government decision.

Only 40 percent said they don’t think the Senkaku issue will be solved through bilateral negotiations. And some 60 percent said they are pessimistic about an immediate solution to the issue, and replied that Japan’s priority is to improve bilateral relations and reach accords on measures to avoid military clashes.

The findings of the survey represent the consensus view among Japan’s opinion leaders, and this consensus is behind my proposal. What we should try to solve now is not the territorial issue itself, but the question of how to contain the problem without inducing a military clash.

Before touching on the solution to the issue, let me clarify my thoughts on the current Japan-China confrontation.

No Other Option But To Purchase Senkakus

The latest Senkaku problem between Japan and China was triggered by the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands. I do not consider the purchase to be an erroneous act. However, the timing of the purchase was another matter and Japan should have explained its reasons to China in a very careful and polite manner. Given the imminent change of the top Chinese leadership, I think there was no need to purchase the islands so hastily. The Japanese government decided to purchase the Senkaku islets at a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 11.

The Cabinet decision came only two days after Chinese President Hu Jintao had directly lodged a strong protest with Prime Minister Noda over the planned government purchase of the islets at the APEC summit in Vladivostok.

Before and during World War II, the Senkaku islets were owned by a private citizen. Since the U.S. reversion of the administrative rights over the islands to Japan, the Japanese government had been leasing the islets from the private owner in order to ensure their long-term peaceful and stable management.

Apparently for economic reasons, the private owner of three of the islets indicated his intention to sell them, prompting Shintaro Ishihara, the outspoken nationalist governor of Tokyo at the time, to declare in Washington D.C. earlier this year that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would purchase these three Senkaku islets. As much as 1 billion yen was donated to the Tokyo government from members of the public as funds for the planned purchase.

The national government was unable to block the Tokyo government’s planned purchase of the islands, which would have been an ordinary transaction of property under domestic law. Understandably, there was no other option for the Japanese government but to buy the islands so as to prevent Japan-China relations from being affected by the nationalist governor and to bring the situation under control in a rational manner and maintain it as it was.

This was not a measure to nullify the private ownership of the islands and to transfer ownership to the state for the purpose of enhancing its control of the islands. Therefore, I consider it wrong to describe the act as “nationalization.” I regret that the ongoing Japan-China confrontation is what many nationalists in both countries have been anxiously expecting.

The Senkaku Islands have been under Japan’s effective control since the 19th century. And the administrative rights over the islands were returned to Japan by the United States in 1972 at the time of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan. It was in 1971 that the Chinese government began to claim sovereignty over the islands. In the process of normalizing Japan-China diplomatic relations in 1972, this Senkaku issue was effectively shelved.

Difficult To Return To Forefathers’ Wisdom

Although the Japanese government does not acknowledge it as an official diplomatic agreement, the top Chinese leaders at that time offered to leave the matter for future generations to decide. The then top Japanese political leaders accepted it in an attitude of benign neglect. Thus, the present state of the Senkaku Islands under Japan’s effective control has not produced a full-blown confrontation to date.

From the very beginning, a settlement of the issue has been hard for people to understand. In both countries, the government took a strong posture to minimize public discontent by insisting that no territorial dispute exists over the islands, while externally accepting the shelving of the issue. In China, the majority of people are not yet informed of the fact that the islands have been under Japan’s effective control.

Like it or not, many people have now become cognizant of the existence of the problem in the wake of the latest confrontation, thus making it hard to improve ties.

The reality is that the subtle agreement of “shelving” is beginning to collapse. In 1992, China enacted a territorial waters law that said the Diaoyu Islands are part of Chinese territory, and so are the disputed island chains in the South China Sea. As China was poised to emerge as a superpower, economically and militarily, around 2010, it began to take provocative measures against Japan. In one such incident, a Chinese fishing vessel collided with two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships inside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands.

Every year, The Genron NPO carries out a joint opinion survey on Chinese and Japanese peoples’ attitudes toward each other’s countries, and on bilateral ties. As anticipated, the Japanese people’s perception of China continues to worsen, reaching the worst level in this year’s poll. Against such a backdrop, nationalistic anti-China sentiment in Japan has been surging as well.

I must admit that it is extremely difficult to return to the old days when our forefathers’ wisdom was effective. In reaction to the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands, the Chinese government drew new territorial markers, or baselines, around the Senkaku Islands and submitted them to the United Nations. In waters surrounding the islands, vessels of China’s law-enforcement authorities are continuously squaring off with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats. We must acknowledge the stark reality that a conflict is developing between Japan and China. There is a high risk that it could develop into a military clash unless we bring it under control. We are at the stage of looking desperately for a new wisdom to break the deadlock.

Start Consultation Without Setting Any Preconditions

In the light of imminent leadership changes in Japan and China, there may emerge new moves to forge a breakthrough in the stalemate. In Japan, a general election is expected to be called in the near future, which could lead to a change of its prime minister. However, I strongly believe both countries should start bilateral consultations on the matter as quickly as possible.

I have two concerns. One is the absence of any contact mechanism between the two governments to avert an accidental incident in the ocean. China is refusing to sign the relevant agreement. It is natural that Japan must assume a resolute attitude toward China’s provocative actions at sea. But it is the responsibility of both governments to prevent the occurrence of any accidental clashes, as the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.

Another, and maybe more serious, concern is the grave repercussions for the economies of both countries. Despite attacks by some Chinese mobs on Japanese enterprises in China, we have heard no word about compensation or arrests from the Chinese. A boycott campaign against Japanese products, including automobiles, continues. The negative impact of these retaliatory measures, direct and indirect, is beginning to be felt in the area of trade. If respect for law and order is neglected in the conduct of free economic activities, it will become extremely difficult for foreign enterprises to do business in China. Today, long-term capital investment in China is being structurally sustained by an increase in Japanese investment, but many Japanese businesses are reviewing their investments in China.

No doubt the world economy depends in large measure on the continued growth of the Chinese economy, but at the same time it is becoming obvious that it will not be so easy for China to smoothly convert its growth pattern to a stable and sustainable one. Should the world’s second- and third-largest economies clash militarily or allow the conflict to drag on, the Asian economy, and the world economy as well, would suffer serious effects. To avoid such a critical situation, Japan and China should value their mutual interests and contain the Senkaku Islands issue in a manner so as not affect other aspects of bilateral relations or other countries.

My proposal is that the Japanese government should enter consultations with the Chinese government without setting any preconditions. The party that desires to alter the status quo should avoid the use of physical force and refrain from resorting to provocative actions, while the party that maintains effective control of the land or sea should accede to the other party’s demand for talks without conditions.

At the same time, the parties involved should reach accords on the necessity of averting unnecessary clashes and managing the risks involved while exploring possible ways to prevent the Senkaku issue from affecting the development of Japan-China relations as a whole.

Maybe these kinds of talks would not generate a breakthrough in the deadlock directly, but it is a necessary step for the containment of the Senkaku problem.

What Is “Tokyo Consensus”

To overcome the diverse difficulties associated with consultations of this kind, I would like to emphasize the necessity of involving private-sector dialogue at the level of “track 2 diplomacy.” We, The Genron NPO, are maintaining a high-level private-sector channel of dialogue called the Tokyo-Beijing Forum, which falls in the category of “track 1.5 diplomacy.” I created this forum in 2005, seven years ago, when Japan-China relations were in a perilous situation like now.

In 2006, one year after the launch of the forum, Japan-China relations suddenly began to improve with then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing. The Tokyo-Beijing Forum played an important role in paving the way for Mr. Abe’s visit to China. In July, only four months ago, the eighth annual meeting of the Tokyo-Beijing Forum was held in Tokyo. At this meeting, the Japanese and Chinese participants worked out an important consensus on the Senkaku issue, the first one of its kind. The agreement is called the “Tokyo Consensus” and what we agreed was, in a nutshell, to “manage” the Senkaku issue.

The word “manage” has two meanings in this context. One is to prevent the Senkaku issue from encouraging nationalism among the peoples of both countries and thereby developing into a worst-case scenario. The other is to bring any clashes over the islands under control, in physical terms. To this end, we agreed to facilitate a public and open debate on the issue, and to set up a consultative body involving experts.

Some 100 leading politicians, government officials, military officers, research institutes, business executives and journalists from both countries have participated in this dialogue, including Mr. Wu Jinan, a senior researcher with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, a member organization of the CoC.

Rational Talk May Able To Generate “New Wisdom”

Behind the latest Senkaku issue lies nationalism among the peoples of both countries. Therefore, it will take a substantial amount of time for private-sector movements to produce tangible results. Now that the reality of the problem has been brought to light, what we should do is to aim at finding a clear-cut and tangible solution. I firmly believe that various kinds of “new wisdom” will emerge out of such rational efforts to calm down and contain the problem, so as not to make the Senkaku issue another flashpoint in Asia.

And these efforts to resolve the issue will serve as a test for forecasting the future of Japan-China relations and offer a good lesson for the resolution of other problems in the seas of Asia.


Yasushi Kudo also serves as chairman of the Editorial Board of “Discuss Japan–Japan Foreign Policy Forum.”