Best way to ease Diaoyu tensions
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.