The diplomatic stand off between China and Japan over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands has entered its third week without any signs of de-escalation.  Positions on both sides have hardened.  Each government has released detailed accounts of the bases for their claims (ChinaJapan).  Talks earlier in the week between diplomats in Beijing yielded only an agreement to keep talking.  The atmosphere of a meeting in New York between foreign ministers Yang Jiechi and Koichiro Gemba was described as “severe.”

The September 10 statement issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs contained China’s key demand at the moment.  It stated that Japan should “come back to the very understanding and common ground reached between the two sides” and “return to the track of negotiated settlement of the dispute.”

What does this mean?  China believes that in talks with Japanese officials involving Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, agreements or understandings were reached that the islands were disputed but that any effort to resolve their conflicting positions would be deferred to achieve more pressing tasks, especially the normalization of relations in 1972 and the conclusion of a peace treaty in 1978.

Japan’s position, however, is that there is nothing to discuss.  As Prime Minister Noda stated in New York, “So far as the Senkaku Islands are concerned, they are an inherent part of our territory, in light of history and international law. It’s very clear. There are no territorial issues as such, therefore there could not be any compromise that may mean any set back from this basic position.”

Such a position – denial of a dispute – is not uncommon in conflicts over territory.  When one side controls all of the territory being contested, it often states that there is no dispute.  South Korea, for example, claims that there is no dispute over the Dokdo / Takeshima Islands, which are also claimed by Japan.  Likewise, China maintains that there is no dispute over the Paracel archipelago, which Vietnam claims.

Why, then, does China believe that there is something to talk about?  Documentary evidence is scant.  Neither side has released transcripts of meetings between leaders when the islands were discussed.  Nevertheless, authoritative party history sources from China sources reveal why Beijing maintains that there was a shared understanding in the past.

In 1972, Zhou Enlai and Takeiri Yoshikazu (leader of the Komeito party) appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus in talks that would be held to normalize relations between the two countries.  In a recent book, Seton Hall scholar Yinan He cites a collection of documents on Chinese-Japanese relations: in July 1972, Zhou told Takeiri, “There is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands. It does not count a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal relations [between the two countries].”   A Japanese magazine article earlier this month contains a similar account.  Thus, from China’s point of view, the decision not to discuss the dispute at the time was a recognition that a dispute did exist.

Similarly, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and the Japanese Foreign Minister also appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus at a later time.  A chronology or nianpu of Deng’s activities published by a party research office summarizes a meeting between Deng and Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda.  According to the book, Deng stated: “It’s not that China and Japan do not have any problems. For example [there are] the Diaoyu Island and continental shelf issues. Don’t drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way.”

(The original Chinese is: “中日之间并不是没有任何问题。 比如钓鱼岛问题,大陆架问题,这样的问题。现在不要牵进去,可以摆在一边,以后从容地讨论,慢慢地商量一个双方都可以接受的办法。我们这一代找不到办法,下一代,再下一代会找到办法的。”)

To be clear, these Chinese source materials only show why China maintains that an understanding existed in the past.  Full transcripts of these meetings have not been released.  How Takeiri and Sonoda responded to Zhou and Deng is unknown.  Nevertheless, they appear to acknowledge the presence of a dispute.  At the same time, there’s no record that Zhou or Deng contested directly Japan’s actual control of the islands then, either.

Other parties, notably the United States, also view the islands as disputed.  The United States recognizes Japan’s administration of the islands, which it transferred in 1972, and that the islands fall under the mutual defense treaty.  Nevertheless, as both Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have emphasized recently, “the United States doesn’t take a position on competing sovereignty claims” over the islands.  Moreover, the U.S. position on the dispute is not new.  Before the transfer, the State Department’s take in 1971 was that “the U.S. passes no judgment as to conflicting claims over any portion of them, which should be settled directly by the parties concerned.”

At the moment, China and Japan stand at a diplomatic impasse.  Yet China’s September 10 statement retains sufficient ambiguity for creative diplomats to define the “common ground” between the two sides in order to restore stability in the dispute.  For example, Japan could state that although its sovereignty over the islands is “indisputable,” it recognizes that, in practice, other claims exist.  If China and Japan want to move forward, they will need to find a way to shelve the dispute again.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

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