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Diaoyu Islands

Boiling point: Can China and Japan find a way to ease rising tensions over the East China Sea?

William Choong suggests ways to put bilateral ties on firmer ground, including shelving the dispute over the Diaoyu islands and a Japanese apology for wartime transgressions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 5:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 6:48pm

Faced with a crushing defeat in the South China Sea arising from the historic Permanent Court of Arbitration judgment last month, China has upped the ante in the East China Sea. On Sunday, Tokyo protested to Beijing after Chinese coastguard ships sailed into the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea surrounding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Chinese fighter ‘flies within 50km’ of disputed Diaoyu Islands

Earlier this month, on August 5, Chinese fishing vessels entered the territorial sea around the disputed islands, accompanied by six coastguard vessels. The next day, a seventh coastguard ship entered the contiguous zone of the islands – what Japan called a “unilateral escalation that raises tension on the ground”. Since August 5, Tokyo has lodged diplomatic protests over what it says have been 30 intrusions by Chinese vessels into its territorial waters.

While the South China Sea disputes have hogged headlines recently, the East China Sea is slowly re-emerging as another point of contention, if not conflict. China’s moves have triggered responses by Japan. Reports on August 14 said Japan was developing a new 300km land-to-sea missile to reinforce the remote southwest island chain that encompasses the Senkakus.

Japan to develop new land-to-sea missile as tension with China over disputed islands mount

Traditionally, China has faced challenges in staking its claim to the islands. For example, it took Chinese coastguard ships longer to get to the disputed islands – Ningbo (寧波), for example, is 500km away, compared to 170km for the Japanese island of Ishigaki. Chinese coastguard ships also had weaker armaments compared to their Japanese counterparts.

No longer. Now, China is deploying two “monster” coastguard ships displacing 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes, larger than Japan’s 6,500-tonne Shikishima-class cutters, formerly the largest patrol vessels in the world. Smaller Chinese coastguard ships – which had previously seen service as the PLA Navy’s Jiangwei-1 class – displace 2,000 tonnes, sail at 27 knots and can get to the islands in seven hours.

China’s actions have pushed Japan to revamp its command-and-control system so that the might of the Self-Defence Forces can be brought to bear in the event of hostilities.

One Japanese coastguard captain told me last year that, in one encounter, a Chinese coastguard captain had even called out the names of his family members and told him to “go home” – a clear sign of how the Chinese have taken Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy” dictum to heart.

Japan searches for eight Chinese fishermen missing off disputed East China Sea islands

It is likely that China would continue to send coastguard ships and fishing boats to erode Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. More encounters between the Chinese and Japanese coastguard would raise the risk of open conflict.

What can be done? First, China and Japan must work together to manage the risk of escalation. They should intensify work on a maritime communications mechanism to prevent accidental escalations at sea. Another possibility would be a bargain – China would reduce the number of incursions, in return for Japan reducing the number of coastguard patrols.

Second, they should work out a tacit acknowledgement that a dispute exists over the islands, and shelve it. Japanese officials seethe at the thought, but the fact remains that officials from both sides have confirmed that such a deal was brokered by Zhou Enlai ( 周恩來 )and Kakuei Tanaka in the 1970s.

Japan PM Abe sends ritual offering to controversial Yasukuni shrine on anniversary of second world war defeat

Third, it is expedient that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe craft an apology for Japan’s transgressions in the second world war – an apology acceptable to South Korea and China. At the 70th anniversary of the end of the war last August, Abe did include the words “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology.” However, he stressed that Japan has repeatedly expressed such sentiments – a sign of apology fatigue. Shelving the dispute and an apology by Japan would put Sino-Japanese relations on firmer ground. And this is not tantamount to a capitulation by Japan; rather, it is a strategic bid to return Sino-Japanese relations to the 40-year calm that resulted from the 1970s-era deal.

Moreover, an improvement in Sino-Japanese relations would shore up regional stability at a time when the United States is going through a landmark year. Donald Trump’s dangerous policies towards East Asia could see South Korea and Japan arming themselves with nuclear weapons. Hillary Clinton might represent less of a departure from the Barack Obama administration, but she – like Trump – plans to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that was supposed to be a critical element of the US rebalance to Asia.

An improvement in Sino-Japanese relations would shore up regional stability at a time when the US is going through a landmark year

Granted, it is unlikely that Abe would change course, given his recent appointment of hardline nationalist Tomomi Inada as defence minister. But a historic rapprochement between China and Japan would go a long way. In future, any Asia-Pacific issue worthy of note – the unification of the two Koreas, the South China Sea dispute and emerging regional institutions – would require Chinese and Japanese leadership.

It takes guts and gumption to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs – breakthroughs that benefit a generation. Think Richard Nixon’s secret dispatch of Henry Kissinger to Beijing to normalise relations between the US and China, and Zhou’s clear-eyed vision to shelve the Diaoyus dispute in talks with Tanaka.

In March of Folly, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman argues that historical follies stem from “wooden-headedness” – policies of governments that ran contrary to their national interests. If there’s a time to ditch such follies, it is now.

William Choong is Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the author of “The Ties that Divide: History, Honour and Territory in Sino-Japanese Relations”