SINGAPORE - Singapore's Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh has appealed to Japan and China to forgo their long staked-out positions and take pragmatic steps to enable a festering territorial dispute to be settled.
Japan needs to acknowledge that it does indeed have a territorial dispute with China over a group of rocky, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, he said yesterday. And China needs to allow the dispute to be settled through international adjudication.
Prof Koh was speaking at a live debate hosted by China's Phoenix TV, hours before Japanese PM Shinzo Abe delivered a keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Mr Abe made no reference in his speech to the heightened bilateral tensions with China over the islands that it calls Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyus. But, in answering a delegate's question, he repeated Japan's consistent policy is that there is no dispute over the islands.
Prof Koh, who said he was making the appeal on behalf of the neutral Asean community, said both Japan and China needed to find the resolve to settle their competing narratives for sovereignty over the islands over which Japan has administrative control and which China claims as its own, citing historical reasons.
"Our appeal to Japan is to acknowledge that it has a dispute with China.
"Our appeal to China is to reconsider your longstanding policy that when you are in a territorial dispute you are not willing to refer such disputes to a third party," said Prof Koh.
China refuses to submit disputes to international institutions that it perceives as being less than neutral.
Turning to Madam Fu Ying, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress, who was seated beside him, Prof Koh said: "My appeal to Fu Ying and through her to China is: Why don't you take the moral high ground and say to Japan: 'Acknowledge there is a dispute and then we will settle this dispute at the International Court of Justice.' "
She did not respond to his appeal. But in her proven diplomatic style, she said "the dispute should be kept in perspective... It shouldn't be exaggerated".
She said she had observed Mr Abe's penchant for the "myth that China is posing a threat to Japan" and using that as an excuse to amend the security policy of Japan, without adequately atoning for its militaristic aggressions in the past.
In a reference to another bilateral dispute in the headlines, the China-Vietnam territorial row in the South China Sea, Prof Koh noted that historically, China's southern borders had always been the most peaceful.
"China has a strategic interest in keeping its relationship with South-east Asia as cordial and friendly as possible," he said.
Madam Fu, in line with China's preference for settling territorial rows bilaterally, noted that China and Vietnam had to work out the row themselves.
Turning to US Senator Ben Cardin, she said: "I don't think Ben can solve the problem for us."
Mr Cardin, noting that the United States did not take sides, said the US stance was opposed to provocative unilateral actions and advocated the use of fair dispute resolution mechanisms.