Doubling Down in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands?

High-ranking diplomats from China and Japan met in Shanghai recently to hold consultations over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Zhang Zhijun, vice minister of foreign affairs, met with his counterpart, Chikao Kawai. Details of the talks were not disclosed, but the continuation of consultations that started in September is important if the two sides seek to maintain stability in the East China Sea.

Just before the talks, however, both sides hardened their stances. A diplomatic solution to the current standoff appears to be fading fast.

On October 19, China held a widely-publicized one-day maritime exercise involving naval and government vessels. Dubbed “East Sea Coordination–2012,” the exercise simulated how China would respond to a collision between its government ships and “foreign law enforcement vessels” in which Chinese boats were damaged and personnel injured. Vessels participating in the exercise came from the regional bureaus of the China Marine Surveillance force and the Bureau of Fisheries Administration. In the exercises, naval ships provided protection and medical aid while government ships practiced search and rescue operations. Photos and videos of the exercises, which occurred off the coast of Zhoushan Island in Zhejiang Province, circulated widely through the Chinese media.

In the context of the Senkakus standoff, the purpose of the exercise was two-fold. First, the exercise signaled to Japan China’s resolve to defend its “territorial sovereignty and maritime interests” with its diverse maritime assets. Second, the scenario of a hypothetical collision of government vessels invoked the current situation around the disputed islands. The message is clear: any incident involving a Chinese government ship could result in the use of naval forces and thus the escalation of the dispute.

At the same time, Japan has been seeking to build international support. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) posted on its website a pamphlet underscoring two aspects of Japan’s position. First, the pamphlet countered China’s claims that the 1943 Cairo and 1945 Potsdam declarations dictated the disposition of Japanese territory after World War II. It also underscored that the islands were incorporated into Okinawa in January 1895, before the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and thus not part of Taiwan and territories that Japan was required to relinquish after the war.

Second, the MOFA pamphlet challenged the notion that top Chinese and Japanese leaders had discussed the presence of a dispute over the Senkakus in the 1970s. According to the pamphlet, “in the course of negotiations with China, Japan never recognized the existence of an issue to be solved on the territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.” The pamphlet then provides excerpts from conversations between Zhou and Tanaka in 1972 and Deng and Fukuda in 1978. Interestingly, the excerpts are shorter than those found in Chinese sources (here and here). For example, the Japanese account of the Zhou-Tanaka talks omits Tanaka’s response to Zhou that the question of the Senkakus could be discussed after the normalization of relations. As a result, Japan appears to be eliminating the option of using some acknowledgment of these past discussions as the basis of a diplomatic solution to the current standoff.

In sum, the two sides are talking. Nevertheless, they are also hardening their positions. As a result, a diplomatic breakthrough may be increasingly difficult to achieve in the short-term. The dispute is poised to become a long-term thorn in the side of China-Japan relations.

[This original appeared in The Diplomat.]