Sharing rocks in the East China Sea

Andrei Lungu | 2 November 2018

Forty years ago, Deng Xiaoping was visiting Tokyo, as the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China was coming into force. There, Deng addressed the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, articulating his famous idea that the issue should be shelved, because “[t]he people of our generation don’t have sufficient wisdom to settle this discussion, but the people of the next generation will probably be wiser than us. At that time, a solution that everyone can agree on will probably be found.” Since then, this issue has remained shelved, but it has occasionally flared up, threatening to upend Sino-Japanese relations. In these four decades, no generation has proved any wiser.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally paid an official visit to China, almost six years after returning to Kantei. But this is not Abe’s first visit to China as Prime Minister. In 2006, just two weeks after first becoming Prime Minister, Abe visited Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also visited Tokyo in 2009, less than two years after becoming Vice President. So why did it take six years for Abe or Xi to visit each other?

As much as Deng wanted to set the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue aside, so it won’t affect political and economic relations between China and Japan, there was too much political passion on both sides to isolate the dispute from broader relations. The 2012 crisis, with massive protests in China that followed the Japanese Government’s decision to acquire some of the islands from their private owners, froze bilateral relations for almost six years.

If Abe and Xi are serious about fixing Sino-Japanese ties, then it’s time to finally settle the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, once and for all. Keeping it shelved means just keeping the tensions bottled up, until they boil over and wreck bilateral relations again. These relations will never be put on a solid footing as long as they are haunted by this dispute.

In order to solve the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, we must first understand its origin. This dispute isn’t about oil, gas, fish or geostrategic position. The world’s second and third largest economies didn’t jeopardize their economic ties for less than 200 million barrels of oil. It’s easy to understand the largely irrelevant value of the islands (or, more precisely, rocks) just by taking a look at a few pictures. Yes, a few dozen people could inhabit some of these rocks, but after the 2016 decision in the South China Sea case, it should be clear that these aren’t islands and aren’t entitled to an exclusive economic zone. Over the past four decades, the rocks have had no practical value, but this hasn’t stopped millions on both sides of the East China Sea to attach a symbolic value to them.

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This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in the South China Morning Post. You can read the full article on the South China Morning Post website.

Photo Credits: A Japanese coast guard vessel patrols near the largest of the maritime formations that form the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (Wikimedia Commons/Al Jazeera)

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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