By Michael McShane
As tensions between Japan and China continue to persist well into the new year, officials from both sides have offered small, mitigating steps towards addressing a thorny littoral dispute, which is threatening to escalate into a military conflagration. Both China and Japan have made competing claims to a small group of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and as the Senkaku Islands in Japan. While the islands are uninhabited, they potentially lie near significant oil and natural gas deposits, making sovereignty extremely desirable with the advent of new, deep-water extractive technologies developed by the energy industry.
Japan has administered the islands since 1971, while China has periodically claimed sovereignty, citing the islands as ancient territory. However, the dispute dramatically re-emerged last year after Japan’s federal government bought three of the islands from its private Japanese owner. The two states have exchanged heated rhetoric and provocative military maneuvers in the waters surrounding the islands since the purchase.
Last month, Xi Jingping, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s next president, suggested holding a summit between the two countries, which was received well by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe:
"It is precisely because we have a problem that we should hold the summit between leaders and have high-level talks… I would like to consider a top-level summit if circumstances allow."
However, in the past two weeks, tensions have hardly tamped down as Japan accused China of using weapons-targeting radar against one if its naval ships. Recognizing the perilous nature of such provocations, Japanese Secretary of Defense Masahisa Sato called for the creation of an emergency military hot line with China to minimize the risks of future confrontations.
Managing and ultimately solving this intractable issue will require skillful and dedicated diplomacy from each side. However, due to the lasting, historical tensions between the two nations, overcoming strategic mistrust and fear will prove extremely challenging.
One of the more effective diplomatic mechanisms utilized to overcome mistrust and foster better relations between states is track 2 diplomacy, a process which “engages retired government and military officials, academics, activists, civil society members and individuals involved in the private sector and business to tackle specific issues that cannot be adequately addressed at the government-to-government level.”
In this particular dispute, building trust over the long-term should supplement and eventually replace short-term Band-Aids, especially considering the global ramifications of a military exchange between these two regional powers.
Such a framework for trust-building between China and Japan was recently articulated by Seton Hall Professor Zheng Wang, a Public Policy Scholar at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States in Washington. In an article published in China-US Focus last December, “From “Top-down” to “Middle-out”: China and Japan can Reconcile Their Relationship,” Zheng explains:
“In many deep-rooted conflicts, past relationships and problems become sticking points during contemporary events and impede the reconciliation process. Because of these sticking points, countries are ill-equipped to deal with intractable conflicts and formal conflict management techniques, such as negotiation and mediation, are not very useful. In such conflicts, sustained dialogue is a more appropriate response to underlying causes. Indeed, a growing number of conflict resolution practitioners have been utilizing dialogue to transform deep-rooted conflicts, such as that between the Palestinians and the Israelis and among groups in Northern Ireland.”
In the case of China and Japan, Zeng offers some concrete steps to improve relations:
“Chinese and Japanese representatives, including those considered “hard-liners” on each side, should begin meeting behind closed doors with competent facilitators. These meetings should continue at regular intervals for a period of several years. Considering the tendency of each country’s media to demonize the other, a journalists’ exchange program should be implemented to permit reporters and commentators to spend time living among the people in the other country.”
As one of the preeminent, global institutions facilitating track 2 dialogues around the world, the EastWest Institute would be an excellent resource for both China and Japan if they choose to heed Professor Zheng’s recommendations.
Michael McShane is an intern with EWI’s China Program and a recent graduate of The Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, where he earned his Masters in International Affairs. He researches issues related to U.S.-China relations, the Middle East and energy security.