The visit last month by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to China to mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of a treaty of peace and friendship by the two countries has been called a “historic turning point” heralding the beginning of a “new chapter” in the relationship. Maybe that’s how it will turn out but, for now, it’s too early to break out the champagne.
That’s not to say that the visit didn’t mark a notable step forward in Japan-China relations; it clearly did. For one thing, this was the first time Abe had been invited to China on an official visit since he – and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping – assumed power in 2012.
Sino-Japanese relations hit rock bottom that year after the previous Japanese administration nationalized the Senkaku islands, which are also claimed by China as the Diaoyu, and anti-Japanese riots broke out across China.
Abe took advantage of his visit to announce the end of Japan’s aid program for China, which coincidentally also lasted 40 years, even after China had in 2010 overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Japan is now China’s partner, he announced, no longer its aid donor.
The Chinese were never keen to let their people know about the Japanese aid. So a good sign is that China now no longer tries to hide this. An article in Global Times detailed the infrastructural projects that the Japanese aid helped to bring about.
One factor in the current Sino-Japanese rapprochement is certainly Donald Trump. Both China and Japan face an American president who is pressing them to make trade concessions. But while there is an important American factor, the warming of Japan-China relations goes beyond Washington.
After all, China is Japan’s biggest trading partners and it is unnatural – and dangerous – for Asia’s top two economies to view each other as enemies.
On this visit, Abe proposed three principles for Japan-China relations: “Switching from competition to collaboration”, a reversal of the dominant trend of the 2010s, “becoming partners instead of threats to each other”, and “promoting free and fair trade”. China seems receptive. This, again, is substantial progress if it is implemented.
But these principles don’t deal with the central problem in the relationship, which is a territorial dispute: the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which China calls the Diaoyu.
Interestingly, none of the four political documents that form the basis of the Sino-Japanese relationship mentions them.
This is because China in the 1970s gave priority to relations with Japan. Deng Xiaoping announced in 1978 that the question would be shelved so it was not mentioned in the peace treaty.
Up until a few years ago, there was an unwritten understanding that neither country would do anything to upset the status quo. China left the islands in Japanese hands and the Japanese saw to it that they were not disturbed. Ordinary Japanese citizens were not allowed to land on them.
But after Japan nationalized the islands, all hell broke loose. The problem now is to put the genie back in the bottle.
The best solution is if current Chinese leaders agree to re-shelve the issue indefinitely. If there is no agreement and China continues to send ships and planes into the area to challenge Japan’s sovereignty, there can be no peace between the neighbors.
Fortunately, the value of these islands has been significantly reduced. The decision in 2016 by a Hague arbitral tribunal on the South China Sea makes it clear that from the standpoint of the law of the sea, these rocks are not considered islands capable of sustaining human life. That means that they are not capable of generating a 200-mile exclusive economic zone but simply a 12-mile territorial sea.
This seriously discounts their value in terms of control over potential oil and gas reserves in the area, first identified by a UN agency in 1969.
With these islands now greatly devalued, a resolution may be possible. It won’t be easy, but at least everyone concerned should realize that the islands have little economic value and the dispute over ownership comes down largely to a question of face. Arbitration would be the best solution but China is unlikely to agree.
That being the case, China will have to agree to go back to the status quo ante, leaving them in the care of Japan. Japan, on its part, wouldn’t erect major constructions on the islands without China’s consent. And the United States will continue to guarantee the security of the islands as part of Japan.
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