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China and Japan remain miles apart on uninhabited isles

At MIT event, diplomats and scholars reinforce high stakes, lack of progress on Asian territorial dispute.
Yukio Okamoto, left, is a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies and a former special advisor to the prime minister of Japan. Liu Weimin is minister counselor at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.
Yukio Okamoto, left, is a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies and a former special advisor to the prime minister of Japan. Liu Weimin is minister counselor at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.
Photos: Academic Media Production Services

The tense, unusual standoff between China and Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and the lack of an obvious resolution to the situation, were apparent during a panel discussion at MIT on Friday, as a Chinese diplomat and a former Japanese diplomat held firm to their countries’ positions, while adding that they hope to end the dispute.

The question of who should possess the five tiny islands — the Diaoyu Islands, in Chinese, or the Senkaku Islands, in Japanese — is a long-running one. But it has flared up again recently, starting in September, when Japan bought three of the islands from a private owner, apparently to prevent them from being purchased by the nationalist former mayor of Tokyo. China has contested Japan’s actions, claiming its own historical right to the property; the two countries have since been engaged in a tense standoff marked by military patrols at sea, as well as public demonstrations at home.

The “Diaoyu Islands belong to China and I think there is ample evidence of that,” said Liu Weimin, minister counselor at the Chinese embassy in Washington, adding, “China did not start [the] crisis.”

Liu emphasized that “China is committed to peaceful dialogue,” and noted that “nobody wants a military conflict in this area.” The dispute, he said, was “not the full picture of Sino-Japanese relations.” Nonetheless, he added, “Japan should refrain from taking provocative actions.”

Representing the Japanese point of view, Yukio Okamoto, a former high-level diplomat and political advisor, politely but firmly differed.

“I agree with most of [what] he said, except the core issue, of the islands belonging to China,” said Okamoto, who served in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1968 to 1991, and is spending the current academic year as a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS).

“We don’t want any military conflict,” Okamoto said, but added, “Whenever we talk with China … the talks are always a zero-sum game.”

Concern, but no resolution in sight

The event, titled “On the Rocks: China and Japan in the East China Sea,” was part of the Starr Forum series held by CIS, and took place in front of an audience of more than 200 in MIT’s Bartos Theater.

The naval patrols that both countries are engaged in were the subject of considerable discussion by the panelists, who emphasized the disastrous effects that any military action, even if triggered by a misunderstanding, could have.

“The current standoff in the islands is inherently dangerous,” said M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at MIT and an expert on China’s territorial disputes in recent decades. He added: “The probability of some sort of incident occurring is growing and growing.”

Of China-Japan relations, Fravel said, “They’re probably the worst they’ve been in a decade.”

But why exactly do China and Japan care so much about the islands in the first place? Some observers have speculated that material matters, such as nearby natural resources, may be helping to drive the conflict. In that vein, Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and director of CIS, quoted Alexis Dudden, a historian of Japan at the University of Connecticut who has noted that, “In world politics, islands everywhere increasingly contain the oceans that surround them, rather than the reverse.”

Samuels also noted that domestic political dynamics could be driving the standoff, adding, “There is concern in Japan that the Chinese Communist Party is not in full control of the People’s Liberation Army, and there is concern in China that Tokyo now has tilted very hard in the direction of nationalist excess.”

Mike Mochizuki, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, acknowledged that this may be a factor, but added that “nationalism itself cannot explain” the dispute, which he called “multicausal” in nature.

Resolution of the standoff may well require outside intervention, although the path to that remains unclear. Okamoto suggested that Japan could refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, but pointedly noted that China does not belong to the ICJ.

U.S. diplomats have been engaged with the issue, and Samuels suggested that one path forward would lead through Washington.

“Both countries are watching carefully to see if the United States can prevent a fight between China and Japan, and each is eager to know, if a fight breaks out, whether the United States will be willing and able to stop it,” he said. “So there’s a lot at stake for all the parties in this dispute.”

Still, there was one thing everyone agreed upon. For the moment, “Both sides don’t have a perfect solution,” Liu acknowledged.

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