Age of reason?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 September, 2010, 12:00am

In 1978, when China and Japan signed a treaty of peace and friendship, no mention was made of their territorial dispute over a few uninhabited islands. Deng Xiaoping did not want the dispute over the islands, known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands and to the Japanese as the Senkakus, to hold up the signing of the treaty. Speaking of the islands, Deng said that if the problems could not be solved, they could be 'set aside and discussed calmly in the future, a method acceptable to both sides could be discussed slowly'. If a method could not be found in that generation, it would be found in the next generations, he said.

Now, more than a generation later, no solution is in sight. Last week, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese coast guard patrol vessels in the vicinity of the islands and the captain was arrested. While both sides no doubt wanted to avoid damaging bilateral relations, neither was willing to take any action that would imply a concession on sovereignty.

Japan took the position that its sovereignty over the islands was undisputed and that incidents at sea could be handled in accordance with its domestic law. China, however, maintained that the islands 'have been Chinese territory since ancient times'. Therefore, if Beijing allowed Tokyo to try the Chinese trawler captain as a violator of Japanese law, it would be tantamount to acknowledging Japanese sovereignty.

The Japanese say it is not just a single incident but a pattern of Chinese behaviour that is worrying. While Chinese fishermen can legally operate in the area, there has apparently been a great increase in their numbers. On the day of the collision, 160 Chinese fishing boats were said to be in the vicinity.

Japan's Defence Ministry, in a white paper issued on Friday, reported: 'China has been rather intensifying its maritime activities including those in waters near Japan.' This is the first defence white paper released since the Democratic Party of Japan - which made closer ties with China a major part of its campaign platform - gained power last year.

The trawler's captain, Zhan Qixiong , was ordered to be detained for 10 days by an Okinawa court, at which time it will be decided if charges will be levelled against him for 'obstructing official duties' by ramming the trawler into the patrol boats. Beijing responded with a series of diplomatic protests, first summoning the Japanese ambassador to meet a vice-foreign minister and an assistant foreign minister, then the foreign minister himself and, in the early hours of Sunday, ordering the ambassador to receive a protest from state councillor Dai Bingguo. While Japan rejected the protests, on Monday it released the crew of 14 as well as the trawler itself, greatly easing tensions.

Ironically, while Deng in 1978 had proposed shelving the territorial dispute in favour of joint development, Beijing last week retaliated by postponing talks on a treaty to jointly develop gas resources in the East China Sea. However, both the mainland and Taiwan prevented the situation from deteriorating by stopping protesters - including some from Hong Kong - from sailing to the area to reassert Chinese sovereignty.

A confrontation between the second- and third-largest economies would be unsettling not only to the region but to the world, so it is commendable that China and Japan acted to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. In 2008, when President Hu Jintao visited Japan, the two countries issued a joint statement in which they 'recognised that the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for each of the two countries'. And they 'recognised that the two countries' sole option is to co-operate to enhance peace and friendship over the long term'.

Beijing and Tokyo should keep these statements in mind whenever new problems emerge. They should remember the big picture; the next generation can be counted on to look for solutions to intractable territorial disputes.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator