Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's February 22 meeting with President Barack Obama reportedly focused on issues related to North Korea, Japanese-Chinese relations and Japan's joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The two leaders almost certainly discussed the dangerous confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.
The seemingly inconsequential islands have become dynamite in Asia Pacific relations, and dangerous and escalating rhetoric and exchanges could lead to detonation. A path toward de-escalation is needed.
On 19 January, People's Liberation Army Navy warships in the East China Sea reportedly locked fire-control radars on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter and, on 30 January, did the same to a maritime Self-Defense Force ship, as announced a few days later by Japan's Minster of Defense Itsunori Onodera.
Fire-control radars provide signals to guide missiles and gunfire to targets, and lock-on is the last step before a decision to shoot. Most military ships and aircraft sound warnings when fire-control radar locks in on them so that operators can take evasive action - or shoot first.
The dispute heated up in August, when Chinese and then Japanese activists briefly landed on the islands and, in September, when the Japanese government purchased three of the five small islands from a private Japanese owner. The move was designed to preempt their planned purchase by the ultranationalist governor of Tokyo - who, the government feared, would aggravate relations with China. But China responded with diplomatic denunciations and cancellation of high-level meetings and celebrations scheduled to mark the 40th anniversary of normalization. It also stepped up deployments of paramilitary ships into waters around the islands, backed by naval forces operating farther away. Beijing appears determined to challenge Japan's administrative control over the islands.
The two sides have taken several steps up the escalation ladder, including the release of dueling government reports making the case for each side's "indisputable" sovereignty as well repeated Chinese infringements of Japanese-administered waters and air space, discussions in Tokyo about firing warning shots against intruding Chinese aircraft and plans to increase Japanese Coast Guard presence in response to the deployment of Chinese ships. Some Chinese scholars and retired army officers even talk about conditions under which China should start a war with Japan over the islands. In both Beijing and Tokyo, new leaders are challenged to protect and advance respective national interests in an increasingly strident environment, fueled by nationalist passions.
Each step and counter step in reaffirming their claims increases risk of an accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. This situation is not in the interest of China, Japan, the United States or the broader Asia-Pacific region. A breakdown in China-Japan relations would inevitably disrupt the supply-chain network that links all of East Asia and deal a serious blow to the regional economy.
The debate over ownership of the islands goes back centuries. But contemporary pleadings often reference the 1894-95 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese war, during which Japan incorporated the islands; the 1945 Potsdam Declaration; negotiations of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty in which the concept of Japan's "residual sovereignty" over the islands found its way into the lexicon of diplomacy; and finally the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Treaty, which returned US administrative control over the islands to Japan. Analyzing the respective claims and counterclaims advanced by Beijing and Tokyo matters little in terms of ameliorating current tensions.
The sovereignty dispute cannot be resolved in this heavily charged atmosphere, especially given the complication of Taiwan's competing claim over the islands. The immediate policy challenge is to minimize risks of accidents and miscalculation in a narrowly circumscribed geographic area.
Assuming both China and Japan share an interest in avoiding conflict, we offer the following prescriptions, some easier to implement than others. All require restraint and mutual accommodation.