Finding a solution to conflict over islands

Japan and China now need to decide between a negotiated and a confronta-tional solution.

Sound has been travelling faster than light in China, Japan and Taiwan lately, as political, religious, and economic leaders use a lingering conflict for their own domestic political interests.

The presenting problem is a longstanding territorial dispute over who has sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The Chinese believe the islands were unlawfully seized by Japan as ‘war booty’ in 1895. Japan argues that possession is nine-tenths of the law and that there can be no dispute since they have occupied the Senkakus for the past 117 years. For the past 40 years Japan has managed to avoid overt conflict over the islands by not raising questions of sovereignty and not engaging in any economic development. For their part, China and Taiwan fully expected that the islands would be returned to them in 1972 when the United States gave up its occupation of the Okinawan chain.

The Japanese illusion that ‘no territorial dispute exists’ was undermined in mid-September when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pre-empted Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's desire to purchase the islands by buying them for Japan.

This offended China and immediately sparked violent protests. More than 60,000 Chinese citizens staged anti-Japan rallies in at least 24 cities to protest the purchase of the islands. The Noda decision and the Chinese response mean that Japan can no longer adhere to the view that the islands are not in dispute.

Early stages

The challenge facing both countries is what to do about this. In the early stages, moderate Japanese public opinion did not raise its voice for fear of giving support to violent Chinese protests. As the conflict escalated, the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, and more moderate opinions urged a de-escalation of the rhetoric and maritime confrontation. They have requested negotiated solutions to the dispute. The questions now are whether or not both countries are hostage to extreme nationalist agendas and what conditions will be conducive to successful bilateral negotiations.

What needs to happen for both countries to de-escalate and resolve the dispute?
In the first place there has to be an acknowledgement of a divisive territorial dispute. By buying the islands the Japanese government opened Pandora's box and acknowledged that the islands were contested. Both countries now need to decide between a negotiated or confrontational solution.

Secondly, because Japan triggered the dispute it should think of some suitable conciliatory gestures that might create ripe conditions for both countries to come to the negotiating table.

Thirdly, political leaders on both sides should start costing the negative economic, social and political impacts of continuing this conflict. Both countries have 340 billion dollars of annual bilateral trade and China accounts for 21 percent of Japanese exports and 20 percent of its imports. The conflict is already resulting in declining tourism and trade between both countries; it makes no economic or political sense to allow the dispute to continue.

Fourth, if there is no inclination or mood to have bilateral talks, both China and Japan should initiate talks about whether it would be better to have mediated or arbitrated negotiations. These could be under the auspices of the United Nations secretary general or his special representative; or, more formally, the case could be taken to the International Court of Justice for arbitration.

This case also highlights the need for some permanent North-east Asian regional security mechanism capable of managing disputes between the countries of North-east Asia.

Fifth, for the conflict to be adequately resolved in the long term, both China and Japan, but particularly Japan, need to devise processes for coming to terms with their common history and memories of war.

The Chinese believe that Japan has not yet admitted its responsibility for the Second World War. The current generation of Japanese decision makers feel diminished responsibility for events such as the Nanking Massacre, sanitised Japanese history textbooks and legal responsibility for the comfort women.

These traumatic memories are reactivated every time a Japanese head of state visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where class-A war criminals are enshrined as ‘war heroes’ or when disputes like the Senkaku/Diaoyu occur. Without paying attention to traumatic history and the humiliating consequences of military defeat, territorial issues such as this will continue to undermine a positive and peaceful relationship between Japan and China in North-east Asia.

IPS

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