Easing China-Japan Island Tensions

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Luo Zhaohui, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs, had made an unpublicized visit to Japan.  The purpose of his trip was to prepare for the next round of talks over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands at the vice ministerial level, similar to those heldin late September.

Overall, this is good news – talking is better than unilateral actions that might spiral out of control.  As I andothers have suggested recently, China and Japan in these talks could revisit past discussions of the islands in the 1970s.  A formula might be crafted that would allow both sides to disengage from their irreconcilable positions.  China could claim that a “common understanding” with Japan had been re-affirmed.  Japan could maintain that the islands had been discussed in the past even though it believes that there is no dispute.  Quietly, China and Japan could also agree to refrain from unilateral actions in the waters around the islands.

What can else can Japan and China discuss that might help to enhance stability in the East China Sea?  Several options exist, even though some are less realistic than others.  Nevertheless, all options should be explored.

First, and more practically, Tokyo and Beijing could agree to start talks on how to share the resources in the waters around the islands, starting with fisheries.  Such an agreement would be the first step toward reducing the salience of sovereignty over the islands.  Moreover, it could be premised on an understanding that it would not affect each side’s claims to sovereignty.  Nevertheless, a resource-sharing agreement would allow for a modicum of trust to be built.  And it would remove one potential flashpoint that could create a real crisis – a clash involving fishermen.

Furthermore, China and Japan have already demonstrated their capacity to reach this kind of a functional agreement.  They singed a bilateral fishing accord in 1997 (though it excluded the waters near the Senkakus), which can be updated and expanded.  In June 2008, the two sides concluded a “principled consensus” on natural gas exploration in the East China Sea.  The agreement noted explicitly they would conduct joint activities “without prejudicing their respective legal positions.”  In other words, economic cooperation would not weaken each other’s sovereignty or maritime boundary claims.

Second, Beijing and Tokyo could accelerate talks on establishing a high-level maritime consultative mechanism.  The first round of such talks was held in May 2012 and included representatives from the relevant agencies on both sides – foreign affairs, defense, and maritime law enforcement.  These talks could be integrated with an effort between the two militaries to enhance maritime communications, which so far has held two meetings at the working group level in 2008 and 2010.  They could also create hotlines and other risk management procedures between the Chinese and Japanese navies as well as relevant government agencies, such as the China Marine Surveillance force and the Japanese Coast Guard.

Finally, China and Japan could explore submitting this case to the International Court of Justice.  On its face, this is least likely.  Nevertheless, it merits consideration.  Japan need not abandon its position that there is no dispute.  China could seek to demonstrate the strength of its claims.  Moreover, it would take time – years – for the court to issue its ruling, creating a “cooling off” period.  When a ruling was reached, it would provide political cover accepting the final judgment.  Alternatively, they could simply announce their intention to submit the dispute to the court at an unspecified date in the future.

I’ve avoided assessing the plausibility that any of these agreements can be reached. Success requires diplomatic skill and political will, which both sides appear to lack at this time.  Nevertheless, talking remains better than the alternative.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]