Category: territorial disputes

Easing China-Japan Island Tensions

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Luo Zhaohui, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs, had made an unpublicized visit to Japan.  The purpose of his trip was to prepare for the next round of talks over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands at the vice ministerial level, similar to those heldin late September.

Overall, this is good news – talking is better than unilateral actions that might spiral out of control.  As I andothers have suggested recently, China and Japan in these talks could revisit past discussions of the islands in the 1970s.  A formula might be crafted that would allow both sides to disengage from their irreconcilable positions.  China could claim that a “common understanding” with Japan had been re-affirmed.  Japan could maintain that the islands had been discussed in the past even though it believes that there is no dispute.  Quietly, China and Japan could also agree to refrain from unilateral actions in the waters around the islands.

What can else can Japan and China discuss that might help to enhance stability in the East China Sea?  Several options exist, even though some are less realistic than others.  Nevertheless, all options should be explored.

First, and more practically, Tokyo and Beijing could agree to start talks on how to share the resources in the waters around the islands, starting with fisheries.  Such an agreement would be the first step toward reducing the salience of sovereignty over the islands.  Moreover, it could be premised on an understanding that it would not affect each side’s claims to sovereignty.  Nevertheless, a resource-sharing agreement would allow for a modicum of trust to be built.  And it would remove one potential flashpoint that could create a real crisis – a clash involving fishermen.

Furthermore, China and Japan have already demonstrated their capacity to reach this kind of a functional agreement.  They singed a bilateral fishing accord in 1997 (though it excluded the waters near the Senkakus), which can be updated and expanded.  In June 2008, the two sides concluded a “principled consensus” on natural gas exploration in the East China Sea.  The agreement noted explicitly they would conduct joint activities “without prejudicing their respective legal positions.”  In other words, economic cooperation would not weaken each other’s sovereignty or maritime boundary claims.

Second, Beijing and Tokyo could accelerate talks on establishing a high-level maritime consultative mechanism.  The first round of such talks was held in May 2012 and included representatives from the relevant agencies on both sides – foreign affairs, defense, and maritime law enforcement.  These talks could be integrated with an effort between the two militaries to enhance maritime communications, which so far has held two meetings at the working group level in 2008 and 2010.  They could also create hotlines and other risk management procedures between the Chinese and Japanese navies as well as relevant government agencies, such as the China Marine Surveillance force and the Japanese Coast Guard.

Finally, China and Japan could explore submitting this case to the International Court of Justice.  On its face, this is least likely.  Nevertheless, it merits consideration.  Japan need not abandon its position that there is no dispute.  China could seek to demonstrate the strength of its claims.  Moreover, it would take time – years – for the court to issue its ruling, creating a “cooling off” period.  When a ruling was reached, it would provide political cover accepting the final judgment.  Alternatively, they could simply announce their intention to submit the dispute to the court at an unspecified date in the future.

I’ve avoided assessing the plausibility that any of these agreements can be reached. Success requires diplomatic skill and political will, which both sides appear to lack at this time.  Nevertheless, talking remains better than the alternative.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Something to Talk About, Again

Earlier, I wrote about why China believes that a past consensus existed with Japan over deferring resolution of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  A colleague recently alerted me to a new Chinese source that further illuminates the discussion of the issue during the talks on normalizing diplomatic relations in 1972 between Kakuei Tanaka and Zhou Enlai.

The source is a recollection of the talkswritten by Zhang Xiangshan (张香山).  Having studied in Japan before 1949, Zhang served as an advisor to Zhou Enlai on Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s.  Zhang’s recollection is a credible source, as it was published fourteen years ago in an article in a Chinese academic journal, Japanese Studies (日本学刊) – well before the current escalation of tensions.

According to Zhang Xiangshan, Tanaka and not Zhou raised the issue at the end of their third meeting in September 1972.  Tanaka asked Zhou about China’s attitude was toward the islands.  Zhou responded that he “did not want to discuss the issue at this time, as it would not be useful (没好处).”

Tanaka pressed further, stating that “it would create some difficulties” if he returned to Japan without mentioning the islands.  Zhou replied that “because oil had been discovered in the ocean there, Taiwan had made [the islands] into a big issue, now the United States is also making them into an issue.”

Tanaka: “Okay!  There’s no need to talk about it, we can discuss it later.”

Zhou: “Let’s talk discuss it later.  Now we should grasp the basic issues that we can settle, such as first resolving the normalization of relations.  This is the most urgent issue.  Other problems should be discussed after some time has passed.”

Tanaka: “Once diplomatic relations are normalized, I believe that other problems can be resolved.”

Why does this exchange between Chinese and Japanese leaders from 1972 matter?  At the moment, China and Japan have staked out irreconcilable positions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  China wants acknowledgement of the “common ground reached between the two sides.”  Japan maintains no dispute exists and thus there is nothing to discuss, including any past exchanges on the islands in the 1970s.

Yet the Tanaka-Zhou talks suggest a way out.  Japan could acknowledge that the islands had been discussed and deferred without altering its claim to them.  China could view such as statement as acknowledging the past “common ground.”  Both sides could move on.  As Doug Paal suggests, if China rejected such a Japanese statement, then the “onus shifts to China” to de-escalate the situation.


[This post originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Something to Talk About in the East China Sea

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 (, ).  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 “.”

The  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 , “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,  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 , Seton Hall scholar  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  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  of Deng’s activities published by a  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: “?????????????? ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????”)

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 , “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  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 .]

Drawing Lines in the Water

In the past few days, China has launched a broad and well coordinated media campaign to express opposition to the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the While tensions rise between Japan and China in the East China Sea, an important development may have been overlooked.

(Diaoyu) Islands from a private Japanese citizen.  The campaign has included remarks by almost every member of the Politburo standing committee, an authoritative statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and semi-authoritative commentaries in official media sources such as thePeople’s DailyPLA Daily, and Xinhua.

Nevertheless, amid all the expressions of indignation, one of the most important elements of China’s response has been overlooked: agovernment statement announcing baselines to demarcate China’s territorial sea around the disputed islands.  Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state enjoys the equivalent of territorial sovereignty within this zone, which extends 12 nautical miles seaward of the baselines that a state declares.

When China first declared its baselines in 1996, it did not publish base points for three areas that were under dispute: the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the Senkakus.  China did draw baselines around the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam claims, but likely did so because it had controlled the entire archipelago for several decades.

At first glance, the announcement of baselines around the Senkakus might just be a symbolic declaration of sovereignty that will not change any facts on the ground.  Although China could not prevent the sale of the islands, the media campaign has emphasized that this act does not alter China’s claims, a point that the baselines underscore.

Nevertheless, beyond re-affirming China’s claims, the announcement of baselines may matter for several reasons.  First, from China’s perspective, it establishes a legal basis for China’s claim to jurisdiction not just over the islands but also, more importantly, over the waters around the islands.  On September 13, China submitted its baselines to the United Nations in accordance with UNCLOS.

Second, as a result, it creates a rationale for an increased Chinese presence around the islands.  The importance of this rationale was revealed on September 14, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that two task forces with a total of six ships from the China Marine Surveillance Force had been dispatched to the waters near islands to “defend our maritime rights and interests.”

Third, a struggle between Chinese and Japanese government ships may occur to control the 12 nautical mile territorial sea around the islands.  In the past, Chinese vessels have usually respected this line, though it has occasionally been crossed temporarily to underscore China’s claims.  If cooler heads fail to prevail, however, the increased number of ships in the area, seeking to exercise control over the territorial sea around the islands, could spiral out of control in ways that neither country wants.  Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Japan, China’s Maritime Step

Many of the most salient disputes between China and its neighbors involve maritime issues. Moreover, as demonstrated by the current standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal, China is often seen as assertive and uncompromising.  Nevertheless, maritime talks held with Japan this week suggest that China can be more flexible in managing its maritime disputes than most outsiders believe.

China and Japan agreed to establish this high-level consultative mechanism on maritime affairs in December 2011 during Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s first trip to Beijing. These talks, which will be held twice a year, are designed to enhance crisis management by increasing communication among related government agencies in both countries. As a press release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) noted, the talks will serve a “platform” for increasing dialogue and communication, promoting cooperation, and managing disputes at sea.

Such a consultative mechanism is sorely needed. As the September 2010 crisis over the detention of a Chinese fishing captain near the Senkakus demonstrated, maritime disputes can escalate into a crisis.  In addition to the dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkakus, China and Japan have other maritime conflicts: the demarcation of their Exclusive Economic Zones in the East China Sea, China’s development of the Chunxiao natural gas field near the median line that Japan claims, fishing operations, and survey activities, among others.

The first round of talks was held at the departmental level, led by Yi Xianliang, Deputy Director of the MFA’s Department of Boundary and Maritime Affairs, on the Chinese side.  Importantly, the participants didn’t just include diplomats but also representatives from key Chinese bureaucracies involved in maritime affairs and their counterparts from Japan, including the Ministry of National Defense (PLAN), Ministry of Public Security (the Coast Guard), Ministry of Transportation (the Maritime Safety Agency), Ministry of Agriculture (the Bureau of Fisheries Administration), the State Energy Administration, and the State Oceanic Administration (the Marine Surveillance Force).

Details of the talks weren’t disclosed. The MFA press release simply noted that the two sides had exchanged views on maritime issues and cooperation, including the Senkaku Islands. Nevertheless, the creation of such a high-level mechanism on maritime affairs may represent a significant development in Chinese foreign policy for several reasons:

To start, the talks constitute the first comprehensive and institutionalized mechanism on maritime issues between China and Japan.  Previous talks over a 1997 bilateral fisheries agreement or the 2008 agreementon gas exploration in the East China Sea were conducted on an ad hoc basis and included only those actors directly involved in the issue being negotiated. Given the potential for any one maritime dispute to escalate and create a crisis, these talks may help stabilize Chinese-Japanese relations.

The present standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal notwithstanding, these talks with Japan reflect a pattern of Chinese moves to manage its territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors. Examples of such efforts include a July 2011 agreement with ASEAN over guiding principles for implementing the 2002 code of conduct declaration in the South China Sea, an October 2011 agreementwith Vietnam on basic principles for resolving maritime issues, and a January 2012 agreement with India for managing border incidents along their disputed frontier.

In addition, the talks suggest that China is strengthening interagency coordination in maritime affairs under the leadership of the MFA. A recent report from the International Crisis Group highlighted the lack of coordination among maritime actors as a source of Chinese assertiveness between 2009 and 2011 in the South China Sea. These talks bring together each of the “five dragons” of civil maritime law enforcement agencies that can influence China’s relations with its neighbors at sea, and may help increase coordination among them.  Moreover, by including the Defense Ministry, the talks may also strengthen coordination and communication between the MFA and the PLA.

Finally, the talks provide a model that might be used to address other maritime issues elsewhere, including in the Yellow Sea with South Korea and even perhaps in the South China Sea. Clashes between Chinese fishermen and South Korean authorities have reached a new peak in recent years, with almost 500 Chinese vessels having been fishing illegally in Korean waters. Likewise, despite a joint fishing agreement, the two sides haven’t demarcated their maritime jurisdiction under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

To be sure, this new mechanism that China and Japan have created hasn’t yet been put to the test. Still, it suggests that China can pursue more flexible and collaborative approaches in its maritime disputes with neighboring states – and that Beijing acknowledges the importance of such flexibility.

 [Note: This originally appeared in The Diplomat]

China’s Maritime Assertiveness

Michael Swaine and I have just written an article for the China Leadership Monitor that examines China’s assertiveness in the Yellow, East, and South China Seas.  We assess whether, to what degree, and in what ways the PRC has become more assertive along its maritime periphery in recent years. It also assesses the external and domestic forces motivating Beijing to become more or less assertive over time and the prospects for Chinese assertiveness with regard to maritime sovereignty issues in the future.

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International Relations Theory and China’s Rise

Whether China’s rise as a great power will be peaceful or violent is a question that animates scholars and policymakers alike. Power transition theory and offensive realism reach pessimistic conclusions about China’s potential for armed conflict because of the benefits of aggression. Nevertheless, applications of these theories to China’s rise fail to examine the size and scope of these benefits and to compare them systematically to the costs of conflict that other scholars have identified. To fill this gap, this article applies different international relations theories to identify potential benefits in one defined issue area, territorial conflict, and then weighs these benefits against the likely costs. The potential benefits of territorial expansion are limited, a finding that weakens confidence in the predictions of power transition theory and offensive realism but increases confidence in more optimistic arguments about China’s rise based on economic interdependence.

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