While the world focuses on Ukraine, ships and planes from Japan and China challenge each other almost every day near a few square miles of barren islets in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu islands. This dangerous rivalry dates to the late 19th century, but the flare-up that led to widespread anti-Japan demonstrations in China in September 2012 began when the Japanese government purchased three of the tiny islets from their private Japanese owner. The issue is bound to arise during President Obama’s upcoming visit to Japan.
When the United States returned Okinawa to Japan in May 1972, the transfer included the disputed islets that the United States had administered after 1945. A few months later, when China and Japan normalized their relations in the aftermath of World War II, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai about the islands. Zhou replied that rather than let the dispute delay normalization, the issue should be left for later generations. Both countries maintained their claims to sovereignty over the islands.
For decades, this formula worked. Although Japan had administrative control, Chinese ships would occasionally enter Japanese waters to assert their legal position. When incidents occurred, Japan sometimes would detain the Chinese crew members but would soon release them. Exaggerated reports of undersea oil and gas reserves sometimes raised concerns, but as recently as 2008, the two countries agreed on a framework for joint development of disputed gas fields in the East China Sea.
In 2009, relations between China and Japan were improving, and a large delegation of Diet members from the Democratic Party of Japan visited Beijing. Then on Sept. 7, 2010, a Chinese trawler near the islands twice bashed Japanese patrol boats, and Japanese authorities took the trawler to Japan. After several days of Chinese protests, Japan released the crew but brought charges against the captain. China abruptly halted its exports of rare earths to Japan; Japan soon released the captain, but China did not restore these exports for almost two months. When asked why China had reacted that way, Chinese officials said that they had no choice because once Japan brought charges against the captain, it implied acceptance of Japanese law and sovereignty.
To Chinese eyes, Japan destroyed the Zhou-Tanaka status quo with the 2010 arrest and then the 2012 purchase. China also believes that Japan is entering a period of right-wing militarist nationalism and that the purchase of the islands was a deliberate effort by Japan to begin a process of eroding the settlement of World War II. Since 2012, Chinese ships have continued to operate regularly in what Japan claims as its territorial waters. Ironically, these Chinese operations are inflaming Japanese nationalism. And so the spiral of action and reaction continues, with no opportunity in sight for both sides to hit the reset button.
Fast-forward to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which in part honors Class A Japanese war criminals. Fresh fuel was thrown onto a fire that needed little encouragement. Having watched Sino-Japanese relations closely over many decades, we think it is fair to say things have not been this bad for nearly half a century.
Japanese and Chinese leaders have said repeatedly that they do not want war. And there is no reason not to believe them. They recognize that disruption of the economic interdependence between the world’s second- and third-largest economies would radically disrupt their development plans and internal stability. The real dangers are not in the intentions of the countries’ leaders but in the potential for miscalculation at lower levels, limited experience in “incident management” and escalation in a climate of competitive nationalism.
In this situation, the best we can aim for is to revive the wisdom of the original Zhou-Tanaka formula. One way of doing this, as some have suggested, might be to declare the islands a maritime ecological preserve dedicated to the larger good of the region. There would be no habitation and no military use of the islands or the surrounding seas. Ideally, China and Japan would agree, but that may be unlikely in the current climate. Other mechanisms could be explored to produce the same end. Both sides might commit to revisit their 2008 agreement on joint gas exploitation. This proposal would not resolve the issue, but it could move it from the front of the stove, where it threatens to boil over, to a back burner, where it can quietly simmer for another half-century.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia from 2007 to 2010 and again in 2013.