Let wisdom prevail over island row

EARLIER this month, The Straits Times was given a rare opportunity to interview Mr Fumio Kishida, Japan's new foreign minister. The minister was on a four-nation swing through Asia.

The interview, the first exclusive given to a non-Japanese media outlet, started out a little subdued. The minister, just 16 days into his new job, was a tad tentative initially, as he answered questions with the aid of prepared notes.

This was understandable. In the Four Seasons Hotel suite was a phalanx of Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) minders, an interpreter as well as two journalists - ST's Foreign Editor Ravi Velloor and this journalist.

As the interview proceeded, however, the minister started to grow more comfortable as he talked at length about the United States-Japan alliance and Japan's close ties to Asean. Mr Velloor then asked Mr Kishida whether Mr Shinzo Abe's government had any "new ideas" to tackle the ongoing spat between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Mr Kishida, through an interpreter, said Mr Velloor was correct in saying that Japan's issue with China related to the "territorial dispute of (the) Senkakus".

There was a collective gasp in the room. A senior Japanese MFA official interjected. The interpreter had made a mistake, she said. The minister did not say that Japan's issue with China was a "dispute", but rather, that Mr Kishida had referred to the "issue relating to the Senkaku islands".

Therein lies the intractability of the islands. Japan, which has exercised administrative control over them since 1972, doggedly refuses to acknowledge any such dispute exists. The islands, as Mr Kishida and other Japanese leaders have said, remain an "inherent" part of Japanese territory based on history and international law.

Chinese officials seethe when their Japanese counterparts repeat such statements. To them, Japan had basically "stolen" the islands in 1895 - at a time when Qing Dynasty China was at its weakest. Add conceptions of honour and sovereignty to the equation and North-east Asia looks like a pretty dangerous place. Ealier this month, the Japanese military scrambled F-15 fighter jets to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, after China sent a civilian surveillance aircraft to the area.

On the bright side, there have been small but tangible steps to limit the diplomatic damage once one looks back at history.

In bilateral talks on normalising relations in 1972, Japan's then premier Kakuei Tanaka asked Chinese premier Zhou Enlai about the islands. According to China expert Taylor Fravel, who quotes an article in the journal Japanese Studies written by Zhang Xiangshan, an adviser to Mr Zhou, the Chinese premier had responded that he did not want to "discuss the issue at this time".

But Mr Tanaka pressed further, saying it would be difficult for him if he returned to Japan without mentioning the islands. Mr Zhou replied that "because oil had been discovered in the ocean there, Taiwan had made (the islands) into a big issue, now the US is also making them into an issue". To that, Mr Tanaka said there was no need to talk about it then but that the two parties could "discuss it later". Mr Zhou agreed, saying that the two countries should grasp the basic issues such as the normalisation of relations. "Other problems should be discussed after some time has passed," he said.

For the next 40 years, this was the de facto status quo. Japan would exercise administrative control over the islands but China would not give up its claims to sovereignty over the islands.

In Chinese eyes, Japan upset this status quo when it nationalised three islands in the disputed chain it did not own in September last year. Indeed, some Chinese diplomats told me recently that they were trying to find ways to restore the status quo.

This should not be too difficult - if logic and reason were to prevail over hot-headedness.

First, Japan should simply acknowledge that there is a dispute over the islands. Yes, former premier Yukio Hatoyama's recent suggestion in this direction provoked outrage in Japan. But to many observers, it strains credulity that Japan refuses to call a spade a spade.

Tokyo should also admit that the recent nationalisation of the islands led to a deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations. Again, this is stating the obvious but it would placate China somewhat. Moreover, Tokyo doesn't need to say it made a mistake.

Second, China can promise that it would make no further maritime or aerial forays to the islands.

Lastly, Washington - beyond stressing that it "takes no sides" on the issue - should remain ambiguous about whether the islands would fall under the auspices of the US-Japan alliance (after all, does the US want to be dragged into a war with China?). All such steps would help bring the two sides back to the relatively calmer state of affairs pre-September.

Writing in 2010, Professor Fravel said it has been "nothing short of remarkable" that both countries have not come to blows. For years, Japan did not erect any military installations on the islands. And for most of the 1990s, the Chinese government sought to restrict the activities of Chinese citizens around the islands.

Granted, a return to the status quo would be difficult. Currently, the domestic political atmosphere in both countries is fuelled by nationalistic sentiment. The Chinese think the Japanese are out to "contain" China. For their part, the Japanese feel increasingly threatened by a resurgent Chinese military. Both sides, however, need some clear-eyed and strategic vision - either they choose to put aside questions of sovereignty for now, or risk escalation into a conflict.

It doesn't take a political scientist to figure out how conflict would occur. By sending maritime craft and planes near the islands, China is essentially practising "salami tactics" to erode, slice by slice, Japan's administrative control of the islands. In any future stand-off, it would only take an over-zealous Chinese or Japanese ship captain or pilot to fire off the first shot, and by then it would be too late.

Speaking to The Straits Times recently, Mr Hitoshi Tanaka, who served as deputy foreign minister in the administration of former premier Junichiro Koizumi, said that both sides should seek to maintain the status quo over the islands. "The basic principle is (for China and Japan) not to further stimulate the public sentiment in their respective nations. If this were to continue, something could happen that nobody wishes," said Mr Tanaka, who is now the chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute.

This is a view repeated by Chinese analysts. In October, the state-run People's Daily noted that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had said in 1978 that the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue should be set aside for a while.

Said Mr Deng then: "It is okay to temporarily shelve such an issue if our generation does not have enough wisdom to resolve it. The next generation will have more wisdom and I am sure they will eventually find a way acceptable to both sides."

Then, Japanese officials did not object to Mr Deng's comments, a commentary by the People's Daily said, and both China and Japan were clear that the two countries had reached an understanding and consensus on shelving the dispute over the islands.

Mr Deng's words still resonate today. He might have been too humble in conceding his generation's lack of wisdom but it is wisdom enough to defer an intractable dispute - at least until more favourable conditions prevail in Sino-Japanese relations.

In future, the management of Asia's biggest issues - the unification of the Korean peninsula, the South China Sea dispute and emerging regional institutions - would require the leadership of China and Japan. Indeed, no issue or problem of import in the region can be solved without the assistance of China and Japan.

In short, even the not-so-wise should be wise enough to not sweat the small stuff. There is too much at stake.

williamc@sph.com.sg