China–Japan relations: creating a ‘sea of peace, cooperation and friendship’

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

Tensions in the East China Sea over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dominate manoeuvring around the upcoming meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the APEC summit.

Yasuo Fukuda and Hu Jintao, authors of the Principled Consensus between China and Japan. (Photo: AAP).

Earlier this year, in response to Beijing’s assertive policy stance following the Noda government’s September 2012 nationalisation of the islands, the Abe cabinet granted the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) wider latitude to repel a so-called ‘grey zone’ infringement — an infringement on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that does not amount to a full-blown armed attack. The reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution (the ‘peace clause’) further allows the SDF to provide logistics support that is ‘integrated with the use of force’ to the US military in all but the most extreme combat locations. Implementing legislation to give effect to these changes is expected to clear the Diet in the months ahead.

The revised US–Japan Defense Guidelines, which are expected to be released in 2015, will operationally integrate the provision of SDF support to US forces in case of an emergency in the East China Sea. Joint plans to enable the US to assist the SDF in repelling a ‘grey zone’ infringement are also expected to be finalised.

Political pathways to conflict management are seemingly at a dead end. To seek a solution based on international law, as former prime minister Noda’s foreign minister fleetingly floated, also seems hopelessly unrealistic. Beijing does not currently submit to the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and cannot be summoned to the Hague against its will. For Tokyo, as administrator of the islands, to press a case would be an acknowledgement of the less-than-final status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

At this juncture it is necessary for both Japan and China to individually practice political restraint and moderation to avoid further conflict. Both sides must assume important responsibilities so that the prevailing status quo can be maintained.

Beijing must desist from violating the airspace over the Senkakus/Diaoyus as part of its Air Defence Identification Zone patrols over these waters. It should ensure that its coast guard neither conducts boarding operations in the territorial sea of the Senkakus/Diaoyus nor launches helicopters in the islets’ proximity. Inflammatory actions at sea — like the instances of training fire-control radar on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer and helicopter in January 2013 — are also incompatible with maintaining the status quo.

Tokyo must maintain its present policy of ‘not entering, not researching and not constructing’ on and around the islands for the time being. It should ensure that activities, such as constructing a port of refuge for fishing boats, upgrading the islands’ lighthouse or deploying civil servants to manage and preserve the islands’ forestry endowment or survey its marine resources, are deferred until Japan–China relations heal. Provocative activities such as stationing Self-Defense Force members around the clock on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands would also escalate tensions.

Once a period of political quiet in the surrounding waters and in the larger (post-Abe) Sino–Japanese diplomatic relationship takes firmer hold, practical and creative ways of cooperation to achieve win-win outcomes on both sides can be contemplated. Tokyo could acknowledge — without prejudicing its legal claim — that an explicable Chinese claim to the Senkakus/Diaoyus exists and, bearing in mind that the stability of the surrounding area is of mutual concern to both countries, resolve to maintain the existing status quo on the islands indeterminately.

Beijing would express its appreciation for this acknowledgement, resolve not to disturb the status quo or peace and stability in the area surrounding the islands and, to the extent that the status quo remains undisturbed, renounce the use of force to alter the administrative control of the islands. Gradually, China’s maritime law enforcement assertions in the territorial sea of the Senkakus/Diaoyus could be withdrawn and the situation would operationally revert to the status quo ante as existed prior to the purchase of the three islands. No scope for joint administration of the Senkaku/Diayou islands is likely to be admitted.

Correspondingly, Japan could remain committed to the absolute maintenance of the status quo on the islands, and any and all measures that reinforce its effective control — such as conducting lighthouse repairs, pier and shelter construction, and temporarily deploying personnel on the islands — could be informally vetted in advance with China. With the passage of time, detailed fishing rules in these disputed waters can be consensually arrived upon and negotiations towards a maritime communication mechanism or hotline, as a confidence-building measure, could follow.

The East China Sea has historically been a sea of peace, cooperation and commerce as ideas and goods have regularly crossed its shores. In 2008 the then leaders, Hu and Fukuda, sought to restore the sea and the wider China–Japan relationship — which had been damaged by Koizumi’s repeated visits as prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine — to this historical norm. Setting the politically sensitive issue of maritime delimitation in the East China Sea aside, the two leaders agreed to jointly develop the sea’s bounty in overlapping zones without prejudice to their respective sovereign rights and jurisdiction claims.

Rather than focusing on the sovereignty dispute itself, Beijing and Tokyo should concentrate on the opportunities arising from the islands’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction by jointly prospecting for oil and gas in seabed areas in the islands’ vicinity.

Indefinitely shelving the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands ownership issue, while jointly formulating win-win economic and political arrangements, would be in line with this cooperative spirit that has underwritten peace, prosperity and stability in East Asia for extended periods of time. The East China Sea would be transformed into a ‘sea of peace, cooperation and friendship’.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington.

A longer version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘A Japan that can say ‘yes’‘.