Thirty-two years ago, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping found a solution to a dispute with Japan over five tiny, uninhabited islands: shelve the disagreement and focus on joint development of economic resources.
That was in 1978. Today, however, the policy seems to be unravelling in the wake of Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing trawler captain and China's increasing assertiveness.
The dispute over the islands, known as the Senkakus to Japan and the Diaoyu Islands to China, goes back to the early 1970s, shortly after the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East released the results, in 1968, of a scientific survey confirming the existence of oil resources in the area around the islands.
China then claimed the islands, which had been taken over by Japan in 1895. In May 1972, the post-war American administration of Okinawa ended and the Senkakus were returned to Japan along with the Ryukyu Islands. That September, Japan and China established diplomatic relations and made no mention of the territorial dispute. Both countries put normalisation ahead of territorial differences.
In 1978, when Deng was the country's new leader, China and Japan signed a treaty of peace and friendship.
Deng himself set out China's policy. 'It does not matter if this question is shelved for some time, say 10 years,' he said. 'Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.'
Since then, shelving the dispute over sovereignty has been China's policy. It seemed to be Japan's policy, also. In 1990, chief cabinet secretary Misoji Sakamoto declared that the island issue should be solved by a later generation.
An important component of the 'shelving' policy was joint development of economic resources. China formally proposed this in 1979. In 1980, Japanese prime minister Masayoshi Ohira responded positively and told a Diet committee that Japan was 'ready to discuss with China possible oil exploration and development off the Senkaku Islands'.
After closer study, however, the two sides discovered that their differences over ownership of the continental shelf proved too big an obstacle. There has been no joint development.
China's leaders realised that shelving the dispute implies maintenance of the status quo. The islands have been under Japanese administration and, as long as Deng was in charge, no attempt was made to challenge that.
The current crisis was triggered when nationals of both countries took actions that threatened to change the status quo. A Chinese trawler entered Senkaku territorial waters and allegedly rammed two Japanese coast guard patrol boats, leading to the seizure of the trawler and the arrest of its captain.
The actions of the ship captain threatened the status quo. So, too, did the attempt to prosecute him under Japanese law. Previously, Japan had simply driven away Chinese boats that entered the area.
Now, China has sent its own patrol boats into the area, further endangering the status quo. Deng made it clear that both countries had agreed to shelve the issue. Now, however, Japan denies there was such an agreement.
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said at a recent press conference: 'In 1978, Deng Xiaoping said that they should shelve this issue, and it may be the Chinese side's recognition that the issue has been shelved until now. It is our position that the Senkaku Islands are historically the sovereign territory of Japan.'
The Japanese media has reported that Beijing again proposed joint development last month but was immediately rebuffed by Tokyo, unlike Ohira's reaction 30 years ago. If Japan disavows the policy of 'shelving', it would be difficult for China to continue to do so unilaterally.
With nationalism on the rise in both countries, the Diaoyu issue needs to be finessed by both sides. Unless they can come up with something better, they should return to Deng's policy of shelving the political dispute while conducting joint development.
It looks as if Deng was wrong when he thought future generations would be wiser.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator