Shelving the Diaoyu Islands Dispute: A Tacit Consensus and the Abe Cabinet’s Policy Change
by Zhai Xin
I. Reaching a Tacit Consensus on Shelving the Diaoyu Islands Dispute
A tacit consensus on shelving the Diaoyu dispute was reached by Chinese and Japanese leaders in the 1970s at a time when the two nations were negotiating the normalization of diplomatic ties and setting up the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty. The following is a series of commentary and narration based on Japanese documentaries.
Fact one: The third summit of the Sino-Japanese diplomatic normalization talks was held on September 27, 1972 in Beijing during which Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei abruptly raised the Diaoyu issue. “What do you think about the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese)? There are people who come to me with various comments about the issue,” said Prime Minister Tanaka. Zhou Enlai answered: “It is not good to discuss this at this time. This has become an issue because of (the discovery of) oil (in the region). Neither Taiwan nor the Unites States would pay any attention (to the issue) if it were not for oil.”
Despite only being a slight reference to the Diaoyu Islands, this conversation is still noteworthy because it was initiated by the Japanese side. That indicates that Prime Minister Tanaka regarded the Diaoyu Islands issue as a significant and pending issue that should be put forward and negotiated on important diplomatic occasions.
Fact two: The fourth summit of the Sino-Japanese diplomatic normalization talks was held on September 27, 1972 in Beijing. After finishing talks on the Taiwan issue, Premier Zhou wanted to call an end to this meeting when Prime Minister Senaka proposed the Diaoyu Islands issue. Hashimoto, then director of the China Division of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recorded the following conversation. “Premier Zhou said ‘We could talk a lot on this issue and will never put an end to the summit. Let’s not talk about it at this time.’ “That’s true,” said Prime Minister Tanaka, ‘we will find another chance.’”
The consensus here is that conditions are not ripe to address the principle differences on the Diaoyu Islands issue and this issue shall not stand in the way of the normalization of bilateral relations.
Fact three: A meeting was held between Deng Xiaoping and Sunao Sonoda on August 10, 1978 in Beijing during which the Diaoyu Island dispute was brought up in discussions between the two countries. “Vice Premier Deng said, ‘But we should not touch it now. It won’t matter if we stay in line with the Peace and Friendship Treaty and put it off for several years. We might fail to achieve an agreement on this issue for several decades. But would our friendship thus be affected? I think we’d better put it aside and discuss it without haste in coming years. It’s not like there is no problem between us. We have different political system and are on different phase of development. We can’t be sharing the same view on every problem. But we do have a lot in common. We can seek common ground on major issues while shelving differences on miner ones. We need to find ways to cooperate and coordinate with each other. That is what the Treaty is, that’s the new starting point you talked about.’ Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda answered, “I have to say something as the foreign minister of Japan, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to justify myself after coming back. Your Excellency knows well about Japan’s position on Senkaku Islands. We really do not expect that incident (Chinese fishing boats entered the waters of Diaoyu Islands) to happen again.’ “Let us put it aside. Our generation won’t be able to sort it out. Let’s leave it to the next generation or our grandchildren. They will find a way out.’”
It’s worth mentioning that after Deng elaborated on his thoughts on shelving the island dispute, Sonoda did not actually refute Deng’s statement, instead suggesting that Chinese fishing boats would never again enter the waters of the Diaoyu Islands, a tacit move to shelve the dispute. As a matter of fact, Sonoda spoke out a year later in the General Assembly of the LDP, who possessed “de facto control” over the Diaoyu Islands, saying that it was in Japan’s best interest to maintain stability and shelve the Diaoyu Islands dispute. Therefore, even for Japan, the policy of shelving disputes is a rational choice that does no harm.
Fact Four: At a press conference in Tokyo on Oct. 25, 1978, Deng Xiaoping answered questions from reporters: “We call the “Senkaku Islands” the Diaoyu Islands. It is true that we hold different views on this. But we agreed not to touch the issue during the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations. We would also like to not touch this issue when negotiating the Peace and Friendship Treaty.”
The most valuable element of this comment is that Deng Xiaoping explicitly referred to the tacit consensus China and Japan achieved on two occasions to shelve the territorial dispute. The Japanese government expressed no disagreement during or after Deng’s remark. China and Japan’s attitudes form evidence that there was a tacit consensus on “shelving” the dispute.
Fact five: It is also important to note the response policy to the Diaoyu Islands incident drafted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in April, 1978. In mid April, 1978, Chinese fishing boats entered the waters of the Diaoyu Islands and caused a public outcry in Japan. In response, MOFA drafted the following policy: “If the fishing boats ‘withdrew,’ MOFA would deal with the ‘ownership’ of the Senkaku Islands according to the principles set in the normalization of China-Japan relations”; “That means that the consensus between ‘Japan and China will not touch upon the territorial issues’ stated in the China-Japan Joint Statement.”
The tacit consensus reached during the normalization of bilateral relations to shelve disputes was proven by the diplomatic engagement policies of the Japanese government. Moreover, as a fundamental foreign policy principle, the consensus is more than a makeshift policy, instead becoming the official diplomatic stance of the Japanese government.
Fact six: Japan’s exploration survey on the Diaoyu Islands in 1979 was contested by the Chinese government. On May 31, 1979, Japan’s most widely circulated newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, published an editorial entitled, “Do not make the Senkaku dispute the seed of discord.” As the editorial pointed out, “The ownership issue of Senkaku Islands had been raised in the normalization of bilateral relations in 1972 and in the concluding of the Peace and Friendship Treaty last summer, but it was finally settled by ‘not being touched upon.’ Japan and China both claim sovereignty and admit to the ‘existence’ of disputes, but they reached a consensus to put it aside and resolve it in the future. Even though the consensus was not included in the Joint Statement, it is a de facto ‘agreement’ and is supposed to be abided by.” The above is the understanding and interpretation of the tacit consensus from authoritative media in Japan, which to some extent reflects the opinions of Japanese society and intellectuals.
It can be inferred from the above facts that during the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972 and the conclusion of the Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1978, leaders from the two sides figured out a transitional approach to the Diaoyu Islands issue – a tacit consensus on shelving the dispute. Despite the strategic ambiguity and the oral form of this agreement, the consensus bore the following two meanings. First, China and Japan did not touch upon the Diaoyu Islands dispute, given that they were unable to solve it. And second, they kept the bilateral relations from being affected by territorial disputes.
II. The LDP’s Response to “Shelving the Dispute” Consensus
In March 1972, Eisaku Sato released the article “MOFA’s stance on the ownership of Senkaku Islands,” objecting for the first time to China’s claim over the Diaoyu Islands. Thereafter, the subsequent Tanaka and Fukuda cabinets abided by this consensus. Since 1972, nearly all LDP high-level officials have claimed Japan’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands while sometimes even denying the territorial disputes between China and Japan in political struggle or other occasions concerning the Diaoyu Islands. But these moves only serve to demonstrate their stance and pose no harm to the settlement of this international dispute. Before it was displaced by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009, in its 30 years of rule the LDP had, despite some marked changes in the latter half of 1990s, held fast to the tacit consensus over “shelving the dispute” whenever Diaoyu incidents occurred. The LDP’s response can be divided into three phases.
The first phase lasted from 1978 to 1991 and involved a dual policy. As Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira put it, on the one hand, the LDP claimed sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands; but on the other hand, it did not deny the existence of the tacit consensus and even took advantage of the benefits that this tacit consensus brought to Japan. Therefore, LDP officials including Masayoshi Ohira advocated “inaction” for a certain period of time on China-Japan territorial disputes, namely putting aside the Diaoyu Islands dispute and seeking opportunities to acquire de facto control and finally settle it. Apparently, “inaction” is only a strategy and tool to achieve ownership and de facto control of the islands. Nevertheless, the dual policy lead Japan to ensure that the island dispute had a low profile and avoided irritating China. For instance, in 1979 Japan’s Ministry of Transport and the Okinawa Development Office attempted to demonstrate their de facto control over Diaoyu Islands by organizing a large-scale survey. The attempt was then criticized by Foreign Minister Sonoda in a Congressional debate, with Sonoda saying, “China chose not to touch upon this issue for the sake of friendship. We, therefore, shall be cautious in taking irritating, public actions.” On May 29, Director Shen Ping of the Asia Division of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged solemn representations over Japan’s “betrayal of bilateral understanding.” Thereafter, the Japanese government revoked its decision to build a heliport on the Diaoyu Islands. It is fair to say that the “shelving” consensus can only be maintained through both China’s respectful diplomatic negotiations and Japan’s consensus proponents. At that time, many political leaders and government officials advocated that Japan abide by the consensus. As Motofumi Asai, former China Division Director of MOFA, recalled, “When I was director, the consensus was a well-known fact within the Ministry.” It should also be noted that the flexible policy adopted by the Japanese government was a result of the deepened mutual trust and more stable bilateral relations after signing the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty. But at the same time, the Japanese government’s insistence on ownership over the Diaoyu Islands also resulted in its weak resistance against the right wing’s denial of the consensus. For instance, between 1978 and 1988, the Japanese government acquiesced to the right wing Japan Youth Society’s plan to build beacons on the Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese Coast Guard even accepted an application from the Society to recognize the beacon as an official lighthouse.
The second phase lasted from 1992 until 2003, during which problems frequently occurred in bilateral relations and the gap between the two countries’ national strengths kept narrowing, reflecting the post-Cold War historical trends. During this period, even though voices supporting the consensus seemed to fade away, the dual policy on the Diaoyu Islands formulated by Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira retained a certain influence. A hallmark event in this period was that China stated in the Law of the PRC on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (1992) that the Diaoyu Islands were an integral part of Chinese territory. Therefore, Japan protested against the Chinese government through diplomatic channels as China’s behavior derailed the consensus achieved in Deng’s meeting with Sonoda. However, as the Deputy Prime Minister Watanabe Michio pointed out in his speech after the protest, “We do not want to sow the seeds of discord between Japan and China,” and “No further action will be taken in my term.” As such, the LDP government still acted in accordance with the consensus. After the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect in 1996, Japanese authorities then switched their stance: not only did their government become actively involved in demarcating Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), but also the LDP put forward a slogan during the election that “There has been no territorial dispute with China.” Henceforth, rhetoric like “no territorial disputes with China” and “more de facto control” appeared frequently in the Japanese media. However, China’s insistent diplomacy somehow maintained the role that the consensus was supposed to play. For instance, in the summer of 1996, members of the Japan Youth Society landed again on the Diaoyu Islands to build beacons, an event identified by China’s Foreign Ministry as a betrayal of the agreement and an infringement of China’s sovereignty. The Chinese Foreign Ministry thus expressed “serious concern” and lodged “strong protest” later in September through their spokesman. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen even made an appointment with his Japanese counterpart Yukihiko Ikeda, telling Japan to “consider the overall interests of bilateral relations” and abide by the “shelving dispute” consensus. Under diplomatic pressure from China, Japan immediately disavowed the legitimacy of the beacons and excluded the beacons from its nautical chart. When the landing of Nishimura Shingo (a member of the Japanese Parliament) was reported in May 1997, then deputy foreign minister of China Tang Jiaxuan summoned the Japanese ambassador to lodge protest. The Japanese Prime Minister immediately explained that he had warned Nishimura not to land and Foreign Minister Yukihiko called on the two sides to handle the issue without harming bilateral relations. As high-level officials from Japan’s Foreign Ministry put it, the LDP government was “sincerely” hoping to stabilize Sino-Japanese relations and “freeze” the Diaoyu Islands dispute. Hence the LDP’s renting of Minami Kojima and other two islands in early 2003 was partly done to stabilize the situation.
The third phase began in 2004 and lasted until the LDP stepped down in 2009, at time when China’s rapid economic growth contrasted notably with Japan’s economic downturn. Meanwhile, the two sides’ interests, views on history, and safety became all the more antagonistic, making it less possible for China and Japan to listen to each other when handling issues concerning mutual political trust and territorial disputes. The United States repeatedly declared that the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty applied to the Diaoyu Islands, further inflating Japan’s attempt for de facto control. In March 2004, seven Chinese landed on the Diaoyu Islands by catching the Japanese patrol off guard, marking the turning point of the LDP’s attitude towards the consensus. For the first time, Junichiro Koizumi proposed that the dispute be settled according to domestic laws, an attempt to de-institutionalize the “shelving dispute” consensus. His policy led to a serious imbalance in the dual policy and announced that Japan’s approach was shifting from political settlement to judicial settlement. That means that if any Chinese ever cross the so-called line of actual control on the Diaoyu Islands, the influence that the consensus exercises upon diplomatic negotiations and international politics will no longer exist. Even so, given China’s continuous protest and active diplomatic negotiations, Junichiro finally repatriated the arrested Chinese, saying that the Diaoyu Islands should not affect bilateral relations. This event was at last settled through a political approach rather than nominally judicial approaches. It is thus clear that the LDP government still regards its bottom line as not allowing territorial disputes to affect bilateral relations. Meanwhile, the LDP curbed Japanese moves on the Diaoyu Islands. For example in 2004, the Japanese Coast Guard rejected the landing request from the Japan Youth Society to avoid worsening the situation; in April 2009, the mayor of Ishigaki Nagateru Ohama applied to the Foreign Ministry to conduct a local tax survey on the Diaoyu Islands. The application was later disapproved by Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, with the reasoning being that the ministry did not want “to irritate China” and “accomplish stable and safe management.”
Therefore, as with other changes in the international landscape and Sino-Japanese relations, the LDP cabinets kept reducing their acknowledgement and execution of the consensus, all while strengthening their de facto control over the Diaoyu Islands. With efforts from relevant stakeholders on both sides, the LDP government, especially its foreign ministry, abided by the “shelving dispute” consensus for a long time, thus preventing an island dispute from hindering Sino-Japanese relations. Such responses differ greatly from those of the DPJ, who denied the consensus in the “collision” and “nationalization” incidents, overstated the role of the dispute in bilateral relations, internationalized the territorial dispute and insisted on settling the dispute via domestic laws. Abe and other LDP political figures once criticized the DPJ’s actions as “extremely silly” and “diplomatic failure” when the DPJ overturned the consensus followed by LDP governments. But if their policy was so “silly,” why did he and others follow the DPJ’s approach after taking office and even adopt a tougher stance?
III. Causes and Problems Related to Abe’s Denial of the Tacit Consensus
Obviously, in order to make the final outcome favorable for the Japanese side, Abe’s cabinet is planning to force the Chinese to resort to an international judicial settlement. But even more noteworthy, he is prolonging the island dispute with the intention of achieving broader political purposes. The following is a brief analysis of these political purposes.
First, by choosing to highlight his party as a more conservative party than the opposition, Abe needs a tougher diplomatic gesture to enhance the party’s image. As the Sino-Japanese dispute has become an international political issue in the Asia Pacific, there has been very limited room for diplomatic maneuvering on the Diaoyu issue. Because Japan can hardly break the deadlock in its relations with China, Abe’s cabinet has regarded a tough diplomatic stance as its top strategic priority, bringing little trouble or risk. Historically, the LDP has proclaimed itself to be Japan’s orthodox conservative political force, denying the contributions of other political forces to Japan’s social development. Until recently, when analyzing the ideological causes of the Democratic cabinet’s issues with China, the LDP’s top politicians, including Abe, often attributed it to the Democratic Party’s “pro-China” or “flattering China” stances. Now the Democrats are still adhering to their original hardline stance. If Abe’s cabinet displays any weakness towards China, the problem will not only involve self-contradictory political credibility, but also shake his image as a conservative orthodox and political hawk in front of Japanese citizens; his party has always been boasting such an image. It can be inferred that Abe’s cabinet has denied the tacit consensus for very practical reasons: his party’s interests and strategy. Most of the LDP cabinets formed after the Second World War enhanced the party’s image and gained strong public support, achieving remarkable things in domestic and foreign affairs. They did not simply rely on political gestures to build the government’s prestige and political status. Therefore, if Abe’s cabinet blindly acts in disregard of the results of a political understanding between the LDP politicians and Chinese leaders, it shows the world that the party’s governance – especially regarding international affairs – may not necessarily surpass the governance of the Democratic Party.
Secondly, Abe’s cabinet has attempted to cater to an increasingly inward-looking and conservative public regarding foreign issues, with the goal being to rebuild a sustained LDP government. In recent years, China and Japan’s relative total economic outputs have reversed, and their relationship has often encountered trouble. In this context, emotional confrontation between Chinese and Japanese people is deepening. That said, it is possible that the following scenario will play out: for the purpose of maintaining a high level of support, Japanese leaders might attempt to cater to an increasingly narrow awareness on foreign issues, and even use this trend to distract the public from domestic governance problems. If this scenario occurs, Japanese leaders will actually build a foam-like governance basis, setting the stage to be voted out of office once again. Analyzed with a little historical context, one can see that for most of the LDP’s time in office, it has managed to maintain a largely stable situation concerning the Diaoyu Islands issue. This is because considerable public opinion favors the tacit consensus of shelving the island dispute. For example, when the Diaoyu Islands incident occurred in 1979, the Yomiuri Shimbun advised the Japanese government to adopt “a frank attitude” and “respond with caution”; but at the same time, it called on “Japan and China to cooperate” and “set a good precedent of resolving territorial disputes in the international community.” In short, the Japanese people want to have a strong government that can properly solve existing diplomatic problems; they do not care whether the government is good at stirring up international opposition. It could be argued that given its poor governance, the Democratic Party government relied on “public support” to consolidate its fragile ruling base. Therefore, Abe’s cabinet, which has maintained high approval ratings since it took office, needs to take advantage of this favorable condition to develop groundbreaking and pioneering domestic and foreign policy and win over the opposition. If it fails to do this, in a few years time the voters may use their ballots to displace the LDP, thus squashing the LDP’s dream of long-term governance.
Thirdly, maintaining moderate tension over territorial issues will create a favorable atmosphere for amending and re-interpreting the constitution. Revising Japan’s constitution was one pledge that the LDP made in its platform when it was founded in 1955. With its conservative and nationalist positions, the LDP has been a powerful party for a long time. If it even slightly revises the existing constitution, which Americans imposed on the Japanese and whose words have not yet been changed, then two issues will emerge: sentimentalism based on political logic, and the legitimacy and legality of the LDP’s rule. But what has puzzled the LDP is that the so-called Peace Constitution helped Japan accomplish economic success and reach the goal of becoming a great power in a short time. The two achievements are also the main reasons why the LDP has failed to amend the constitution over the past nearly 60 years. As a result, the LDP, which will continue to adhere to its constitutional revision platform, seeking collective self-defense as a short-term goal, will above all seek to convince the Japanese people and the LDP’s coalition ally New Komeito, who hold different views on these issues. To persuade and politically mobilize, the party will attempt to maintain a certain level of tension in the international security environment. Japan currently has three territorial disputes with foreign countries, but only the Diaoyu Islands are considered to be under its “effective control.” So this dispute will be the most valuable tool to highlight the urgency of Japan’s security situation. Constitutional revision and collective self-defense are examples of Japan “playing with fire.” If the two goals are achieved and Japan’s neighbors are antagonized, wouldn’t that be called a self-defeating strategy?
Fourthly, there is fear that softening Japan’s stance towards China will have a domino effect, hampering the country’s efforts to handle its territorial issues with South Korea and Russia. To the Abe cabinet, the Diaoyu Islands are one of Japan’s territorial disputed areas where Japan exercises so-called “administrative rights.” If his cabinet radically changes its diplomatic position towards China, this would offer an opportunity for South Korea and Russia to also become emboldened. Japan’s outstanding territorial issues with other countries have different causes, scopes and characteristics, so their solutions may hardly be similar and it is difficult to find a single approach to solve them all. In addition, territorial issues facing Japan assume different degrees of importance. As such, a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not make sense diplomatically. In fact, when dealing with Japan’s territorial issues with China and the Russia (the former Soviet Union) in the past, the LDP government tended to follow a double standard. As a Japanese scholar put it: “Regarding the Senkaku Islands issue, the Japanese and Chinese governments have publicly proposed the policy of “setting aside” the issue; but with regards to the Northern Territories issue, the Japanese government has consistently been opposed to shelving the dispute.” As a result of the territorial issues between Japan and Russia, the two countries have so far failed to conclude a peace and friendship treaty. In contrast, in 1978, before signing the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty, both countries valued the overall development of their bilateral relations and clearly demarcated territorial issues from the treaty.
Fifthly, by prolonging the island dispute, Japan hopes to gain stronger U.S. support and enhance its international strategic interests. In recent years, because of its strategic rebalancing to Asia, the United States has strengthened its intervention in East Asian issues. Japan is keenly aware of the United States’ policy objective: it wants the Diaoyu Islands issue to persist and hopes to be able to maintain control over the issue. By pursuing a tough stance on the Diaoyu Islands issue, Abe’s cabinet will kill three birds with one stone. First, by echoing U.S. strategy, it will strengthen the Japan-US alliance, which is the overall objective of Japan’s diplomacy. Second, by using the Japan-U.S. alliance and even its confrontation with China, Japan will enhance its international influence and soft power. For example, since taking office, Abe has visited more than ten countries in less than a year. That helped “make international public opinion believe that Japan was acting calmly, putting Japan at an advantage” while promoting Japan’s presence in the Asia Pacific region. Third, because Japan helps the United States contain China’s maritime efforts in the Far East, Japan may obtain more U.S. support in curbing China. For example, the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution criticizing China. Japan can even take advantage of the White House’s expectations in order to force the U.S. to re-adopt its policy during the days of the Koizumi cabinet, when the U.S. moderated its criticism towards Japan on the issues of Japanese politicians visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, comfort women and other historical matters. From the perspective of the Diaoyu Islands issue, the U.S. strategy and countermeasures are always based on maximizing the United States’ national interest. Since both China and Japan are permanent neighbors, both should be honest about these issues, including territorial disputes, and if the issues are suitable, they should be solved in ways that stand the test of history. This is how international affairs should be conducted. If Japan blindly relies on intervention from other countries and even stirs up problems, frequently confronting and antagonizing its neighboring countries, then Japan, which has long been dependent on a peaceful international environment, will have put the cart before the horse – in other words, their policy will only hurt their interests.
Chinese and Japanese leaders have long adhered to a tacit consensus on shelving the Diaoyu Islands dispute, effectively promoting their bilateral ties. This process has revealed the wisdom of dealing with territorial issues and reflected the practical value of this particular tacit consensus. Based on the above argument, one can conclude that the two countries involved should not let this specific island dispute affect their consensus on overall bilateral relations. In this sense, it could be argued that denying the tacit consensus will bring about a bigger problem: a local island dispute may be allowed to hijack the healthy development of bilateral relations.
If Abe’s cabinet wishes to contribute positively to the development of Sino-Japanese relations, it should grasp the historical facts of Sino-Japanese diplomacy and earnestly learn from the LDP’s experiences and the Democratic cabinet’s lessons. It should rapidly return to the tacit consensus and shelve the dispute. This will demonstrate whether or not it is actually committed to the development of Sino-Japanese relations. If Abe’s cabinet, obsessed with his party’s interests and strategies, blindly engages in diplomatic confrontation, problems will undoubtedly arise. This will not benefit the social development and security of Japan and the wider Asia Pacific region, nor will this be in accordance with nationalism and realism, which Abe and other top LDP politicians regard as a supreme model for political governance.
Source: China International Studies November/December 2013 p63-78