A Retrospect of Understanding and Consensus Reached Between China and Japan on the Diaoyu Islands

A Retrospect of Understanding and Consensus Reached Between China and Japan on the Diaoyu Islands




On September 10, 2012 the Japanese government announced its decision to purchase the Diaoyu Island and two of its affiliated islets from so-called "private owner." This move breaks away from the mutual understanding and consensus reached between China and Japan, and raises doubt as to whether such understanding and consensus existed.

As known to all, the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands became a major obstacle in talks to establish diplomatic relations between PRC and Japan 40 years ago. As both countries agreed that the normalization of bilateral ties was the top priority and that the Diaoyu Islands issue should not detract from this process, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Japanese PM Tanaka Kakuei decided to shelve the issue and "discuss it later." This is viewed as the origin of the understanding and consensus over the issue.

In the second half of the 1970s, China and Japan both made efforts to sign a peace and friendship treaty. The fact that Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping reached an understanding with Japanese leaders on the Diaoyu Islands was widely acknowledged in media circles and the general public of the two countries. On October 25,1978, Deng Xiaoping said during a meeting with the then Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda: "It is totally understandable that we have different views on some issues. For example, we have different opinions on the place that you call the Senkaku Islands and we call the Diaoyu Islands. It is wise to avoid this topic in negotiation. The younger generation will be wiser and we should regard our common interests as the priority." Fukuda voiced no objections to this statement.

When the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) took effect in 1996, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the basis of its interpretation of this law, unilaterally reneged on its previous stance of recognizing disputes over the islands and shelving the issue. For this, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs negotiated with the Japanese authorities many times. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen met with Japan's Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda on November 23, 1996 urging Japan not to change its previous stance and undermine the consensus on the Diaoyu Islands that both countries had achieved. Ikeda indicated that both countries should keep calm, even though their standpoints differed.The two countries should strive to avoid undermining bilateral relations. Some Japanese nationalists built a lighthouse on the island. This had nothing to do with the official stance of the Japanese government. On the contrary, it presented the Japanese government with a conundrum.

Besides, facing the Chinese government's stance of "grasping sovereignty, shelving disputes, and co-exploiting the resources of the islands," the Japanese government said that the moves by the country's rightwing nationalists deviated from the government's stance. It had committed itself to "non-participation, non-support and non-approval" of rightwingers' actions. Moreover, the Japanese Coast Guard had been preventing the rightwing agitators from landing on the Diaoyu Islands and also restricted transportation of construction materials to the islands.

But in 2002, the Japanese government signed a "rental contract" with so-called "private owner" of the islands. For this move, China made serious representations. The Japanese government said this was done to maintain stable administration of the islands and bar anyone from making unpermitted landings. The Japanese side explained its move in private to Chinese officials in this way: its move mainly aimed to prevent disputes triggered by Japanese rightwingers' landing on the islands. But considering China's opposition to Japan's "nationalization" of the islands in any way, the Japanese government ultimately decided to adopt the form of "rental contract" after repeated considerations and weighing. Until recently, Japanese police had summoned and questioned members of local and national parliaments who had landed the islands.

The above facts indicate that the dispute was successfully contained by way of tacit diplomatic agreement for a quarter of a century after the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. The issue became more complicated in 1996 when Japan outright denied the dispute over the islands even existed. This action has become a catalyst for confrontation ever since.

If the two countries do want to solve the issue, the only path forward is to acknowledge the dispute, sit down in front of a negotiating table, and seek a new consensus and balance through calm dialogue and communication. This is the only way to ensure peace and well-being for the people of the two nations, as well to meet the demands and expectations of the international community for the two countries to maintain a prosperous and stable East Asia.


(GAO HONG is deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)