TOKYO - While he was Prime Minister of Japan from September 2009 to June 2010, Yukio Hatoyama did not demonstrate a particularly acute political vision. But when he visited Beijing recently, he showed common sense shared by many Japanese but seldom seen in their leaders – he admitted that there was a “territorial disagreement” between Japan and China.
Was this a wise move? Coast guards, boats and fighter planes from both countries have been defying each other at sea and in the skies around the disputed Senkaku islands ("Diaoyu" in Chinese). Tokyo announced on Jan. 29 that a 600-men and a 12-ship contingent would be sent to keep an eye on the archipelago. In this context, it is totally “politically incorrect” to even admit that there is a dispute. The question is not even open for debate. End of discussion. “If we look at the historical facts, there is indeed a disagreement,” admitted Hatoyama: “Both parties must find a solution and we must admit that there are conflicting points of views. We will never find a solution if we stay in complete denial.”
This statement, which made the front pages of Chinese newspapers, was qualified by the Japanese government spokesman as “very unfortunate coming from a former Prime Minister.”
Hatoyama continued his Chinese trip by visiting the Nanking Massacre memorial. According to China, in December 1937, 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers were slaughtered by the Japanese imperial army. Whatever the number of victims – this is the subject of much controversial as well – it is indisputable that the massacre occurred. This tragic episode is minimized and often denied by the Japanese right wing.
In his policy overview speech to the Parliament on Jan. 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe focused on economical questions instead of getting into the historical revisionism he is so fond of. Without explicitly naming China, he assessed the necessity to “take all possible measures,” to defend Japan’s “territory, territorial waters and airspace.” The day before, he had announced an increase in military spending – the first increase in 11 years – as well as his intention to beef up defense forces around the Senkaku Islands and other southwestern Japanese territories.
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Even though there are talks underway between Beijing and Tokyo, an agreement on the disputed islands seems out of question as long as both parties hold their positions. Tokyo’s refusal to admit there is a problem is just as bad as Beijing’s refusal to admit that the Senkaku Islands have been administered by Japan for decades.
Beijing said it was “strongly dissatisfied,” after former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida “We acknowledge the islands are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration."
The disputed islands are protected under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that obliges the U.S. to defend Japan in case of hostilities. In fact, one of the islands was used in the past for military drills by the U.S. forces based in Japan – even though at the time Beijing didn’t move a finger.
Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its dispute with China paired with China’s refusal to acknowledge reality is not conducive for negotiations. What’s more, the territorial dispute is part of a larger and long-running rivalry between the two countries. Even though it is in decline, Japan is economically much richer than China and its army is better trained and better equipped. But the balance of power can shift very quickly.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the Senkaku Islands are valuable for both countries – not only because their surrounding waters are rich in natural resources but also because they form a string of islands stretching from Japan to the Philippines, and granting access to important sea routes. This is the route tankers and cargos use to go from Japan to southeast Asia and the Middle East. This could also be a perfect route for Chinese submarines wanting to go undetected through the Pacific.
These geopolitical issues come on top of a historical – and bilateral – intolerance between both countries. However, historical distrust shouldn’t influence relations between neighboring countries. Political posturing fuels the dispute and increases the risk of diplomatic incidents.
The fragmented Japanese political parties are using this issue as a rallying cause, while the new Chinese leaders are using the dispute to drown out internal issues with nationalism. There is not much cause to be optimistic for a quick outcome. Who of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping will be the first to show some courage and moderation by placing these tiny islands into a much wider context?