The Diaoyu Islands are a group of uninhabited islands located roughly due east of mainland China, northeast of Taiwan, west of Okinawa Island, and north of the southwestern end of the Ryukyu Islands. They are currently controlled by Japan, which calls them Senkaku Islands. Both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over the islands.
Taiwan-style accommodation can work in Diaoyus dispute
Deng Yuwen and Niv Horesh call on China and Japan to defuse tension over their islands row at all costs, including by considering a deal based on Beijing's moderate approach to Taiwan
Deng Yuwen and Niv Horesh
China's establishment of an air defence identification zone around the East China Sea makes for a serious escalation in tension with Japan. Already, there are reports that not only Japan but also the US, Taiwan and South Korea have all flown warplanes into the zone without informing China, to defy its intent. China, for its part, maintains that it has scrambled warplanes of its own to probe so-called intrusions.
Civil aviation in the area is also fraught. US airlines have reportedly been advised by their government to comply with the new Chinese demands for identification, on safety grounds, while Japanese airlines have been advised by officials not to comply on national-interest grounds. Pilot misunderstanding is, in these circumstances, simply a question of time.
Previously, it was Japan that raised the stakes by nationalising the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkakus). Tit-for-tat measures have since followed, with Japan declaring along the way that it would intercept Chinese unmanned aircraft penetrating the airspace above the islets.
For over a year now, there have been no face-to-face meetings between China's and Japan's leaders, while on a popular level enmity between the two nations has increased.
As a result, bilateral trade and investment have plummeted, to the detriment of both sides. Ironically, this stand-off over the islets is posing a threat to the core national interests of both economic powerhouses. It is putting at jeopardy peace and prosperity across East Asia, and is unnerving the rest of the world, not least because recovery from the 2008 global economic crisis hinges on this region.
In that sense, Japan's nationalisation of the islets was a misguided fracture of the status quo that made China enhance its naval presence there in retaliation. It is doubtful whether Tokyo anticipated such a strong reaction when it made the decision, and it may well be that it has too easily surrendered at the time to populist pressures at home.
Either way, Beijing reaped the benefit of this hasty decision by seizing the opportunity and laying claim to the islets much more forcefully than was the case in the past. It is no surprise, therefore, that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while defiant in the media, is actually seeking to somehow back-pedal to the status quo.
Indeed, Abe's proposal for both countries to find a modus operandi for naval activity around the islets makes sense. In the interim, however, public opinion in both countries has become so belligerent that neither Abe nor President Xi Jinping can afford to look too soft.
When Deng Xiaoping introduced China's sweeping reforms back in 1978, he decided to defer the Diaoyus maritime dispute with the Japanese to the wisdom of "later generations" so as not to alienate Japanese investors. Today, this approach seems out of touch because the balance of economic and political power has changed worldwide, and because the present generation is not necessarily proving wiser.
The Diaoyus dispute can very rapidly get out of control, resulting in incessant hostilities that would set back East Asia's economic miracle by decades or even see a lapse back to cold-war-like rivalry. At the same time, China's image abroad as being war-averse would get badly tarnished, and its recent warming of relations with South Korea would be put at risk.
For all these reasons, the dispute needs to be defused on a viable basis rather than simply be adjourned. The only way to achieve such a resolution would be to partly draw on Beijing's moderate and largely effective approach to Taiwan through the early 1980s, even as it labelled Taiwan a "renegade province". In reality, it learned to live with Taiwan's de facto independence and benefited enormously from Taiwanese investment. Much like what former US president Jimmy Carter has proposed, we believe China and Japan must work out tacit understandings whereby each side will tolerate the other's proclamation of sovereignty over the islets, and at the same time collaborate in developing the rich mineral resources that are said to be underwater.
The islets themselves should be left uninhabited, and no more naval surveillance installations should be erected there by Japan. Gradually, all naval exercises surrounding the islets should be halted.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the European Union's enlargement gave rise to speculation about the decline of nation-statehood in favour of multi-national economic integration. The Sino-Japanese maritime dispute over such a small territory is a reminder that, elsewhere in the world, nation-statehood still matters a great deal. Populist streaks of nationalism can also often hijack longer-term foreign-policy agendas.
Both China and Japan stand to lose an awful lot if they surrender to such populist pressures. Rather than dismiss the lessons of European integration offhand, or discount the Taiwanese experience, both China and Japan should work harder towards closer economic collaboration. They should avoid letting contested sovereignty over small islets hijack East Asia's economic miracle.
Deng Yuwen is a Beijing-based political analyst and a visiting scholar at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. Niv Horesh is a reader in contemporary Chinese studies at the university