Best way to ease Diaoyu ten­sions

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - HO LOK- SANG The au­thor is di­rec­tor of the center for Pub­lic Pol­icy Stud­ies, Ling­nan Univer­sity.

Sino-Ja­panese re­la­tions have gone from bad to worse af­ter Shinzo Abe be­came prime min­is­ter of Ja­pan for the sec­ond time. Mr Abe has taken a tough stance against China. His gov­ern­ment has in­structed Ja­pan’s two big­gest air­lines, ANA Hold­ings and Ja­pan Air­lines, not to file flight plans de­manded by China on routes through the new Chi­nese Air De­fense Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone. Mr Abe is also seek­ing sup­port from the Philip­pines and Viet­nam and other ASEAN coun­tries to form some kind of al­liance to con­tain China. He be­lieves he has the back­ing of the United States which un­der the US-Ja­pan se­cu­rity al­liance will come to Ja­pan’s aid in the event of an at­tack.

Sino-Ja­panese re­la­tions used to be rea­son­ably good un­til re­cently. Al­though China has al­ways been un­happy about Ja­pan’s claims over the Diaoyu Is­lands and about Ja­pan’s fail­ure to ac­knowl­edge its re­spon­si­bil­ity for atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted in China and other neigh­bor­ing coun­tries in the last cen­tury, China has fol­lowed Deng Xiaop­ing’s ad­vice to leave dis­putes alone for the time be­ing, and con­cen­trate on co­op­er­a­tion. Dur­ing the early 1970s, the Bao­diao (Pro­tect the Diaoyu Is­lands) move­ment started in Hong Kong. It was led by stu­dents and other con­cerned cit­i­zens. Among the stu­dent lead­ers was my univer­sity friend, Chan Yuk-che­ung, who died on a mis­sion to the Diaoyu Is­lands to as­sert China’s sovereignty in 1996.

Through­out this time, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment had adopted an at­ti­tude of for­bear­ance to­ward Ja­pan, while Chi­nese na­tion­als from Hong Kong as well as from Tai­wan were ac­tive in as­sert­ing China’s sovereignty over the is­lands. While China took an at­ti­tude of for­bear­ance, how­ever, Ja­pan adopted an in­creas­ingly as­sertive ap­proach, even al­low­ing some right-wing groups to con­struct a light tower on the is­lands, and then of­fi­cially “pur­chas­ing” them from the Ja­panese fam­ily which claimed own­er­ship over the is­lands.

Af­ter Xi Jin­ping took over the lead­er­ship, there has been a ma­jor shift in China’s strat­egy to­ward the Diaoyu is­sue. Xi rec­og­nizes that for­bear­ance had al­lowed in­creas­ingly bla­tant ac­tions from Ja­pan and may make it even more diffi- cult to as­sert China’s sovereignty over the is­lands. Sovereignty is a mat­ter of na­tional pride, and many peo­ple across the Tai­wan Straits have been hop­ing the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment will adopt a tougher stance. Pres­i­dent Xi’s more as­sertive ap­proach to the is­lands is in re­sponse to sen­ti­ments com­ing from the grass­roots.

Na­tional pride based on sovereignty is clearly a zero-sum game be­tween China and Ja­pan, and can never be re­solved in a cor­dial man­ner. If Ja­pan had openly ac­knowl­edged there was dis­pute over sovereignty and fol­lowed Deng’s ad­vice to put the sovereignty is­sue aside, and con­cen­trate on co­op­er­a­tion to ex­ploit the re­sources in seas around the is­lands, China and Ja­pan would still be on good terms. Now that re­la­tions have soured, Ja­pan’s eco­nomic in­ter­ests are un­der threat, and there could even be con­flict if ten­sions es­ca­late. This will be con­trary to the in­ter­ests of both na­tions, as well as dan­ger­ous to re­gional and global sta­bil­ity. In ac­cor­dance with Deng Xiaop­ing’s sage ad­vice, it is in the best in­ter­ests of China and Ja­pan to leave the is­sue of sovereignty aside.

Ho Lok-sang

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