China and Japan's Great Clash over the Senkakus

Can a compromise be found? Michael O'Hanlon responds to the critics. 

Within the pages of the National Interest, I have had the privilege of being part of a recent discussion about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea with Robert Manning and Ryan Scoville, two very accomplished and fair-minded scholars.  After my earlier article, “A Six-Point Plan to Solve the Senkaku Island Dispute,” published on December 29 and summarizing an earlier essay that Akikazu Hashimoto, Wu Xinbo and I had penned, Robert Manning rebutted our argument in a post earlier this month. Ryan Scoville then wrote an article partly in response to my earlier piece.

I would like to respond briefly to the central argument of both Manning and Scoville.  I disagree fundamentally with neither.  But I stand by my guns, and our earlier argument, that a balanced proposal for trying to solve the island dispute can be a constructive force in the current Japan-China relationship.

In brief, Manning argues that history, national pride, and honor of the type that Thucydides wrote about millennia ago in regard to Athens and Sparta would prevent Tokyo and Beijing from responding favorably to any rationalist plan that treated the island issue as a simple, straightforward disagreement over relatively small and unimportant land formations.  Manning claimed that the difficulties in the complex Japanese-Chinese relationship, with all of its baggage and tensions today, would trump any analytical attempt to cleverly bridge the divide between these two countries through a form of arbitration.  His advice was to manage the problem and try to cool it down rather than to go for a Hail Mary attempt at solving it.

Scoville took a different tack.  Recognizing that Hashimoto, Wu, and I had sought a compromise plan that was in effect equitable to both sides, he dismissed the premise behind this approach, arguing that in fact Japan simply has a stronger claim to the islands.  International law and norms would tend to grant it a strong claim over land that it has in fact been controlling for many decades—at most times, without active Chinese dissent or challenge.  De facto, Japan has been ruling the islands, so de jure, by the way these matters tend to be settled through human history, its claims are strongest.  As such, an attempt at a fair outcome treating the two parties equally proceeds from a faulty premise, and should be abandoned.  Scoville also argued that these islands had been used extensively enough in the past, including by temporary human settlements, that they should in fact be associated with exclusive economic zones around them—another disagreement with our suggested approach.

In summary, the original proposal that I set forth with Professor Hashimoto and Professor Wu included the following aspects:

1) No new territorial disputes beyond this one would be raised by either party in the future;

2) Ongoing, separate disputes between China and Japan over exclusive economic zones would be unaffected by the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; they would be decoupled from EEZ determinations;

3) Each side would acknowledge the sovereignty claims over all the islands by the other;

4) Japan would, however, retain formal administrative rights under international law;

5) Japan would agree to delegate the administration of the islands to a joint oversight board with equal memberships on the Chinese and Japanese sides, rotating chairmanship, and consensus decision-making rules;

6) Patrols for purposes of safety, and tours of the islands for reasons of tourism or ecology or history, would be organized and conducted together by China and Japan and regulated by the board;

In regard to Manning’s argument, my response is simple—he could well be right.  The National Interest gave our initial essay a pithy title, conveying a high degree of confidence that our plan would work.  In fact, we were not predicting any easy win.  Our intent, rather, was to try to make the debate over these islands more concrete and solution-oriented than it has generally been in the past.

In broader terms, however, Manning is too deterministic.  The fact that Japan and China are not getting along well right now should not be interpreted to mean that it cannot improve in the future.  Clearly, France and Germany had every bit as troubled a past as Japan and China yet get along very well now.  This is true for many other interstate relationships in Europe as well.  It is also true to a considerable degree for the U.S.-Mexico relationship; indeed, it is true for Japan and the United States today as well. 

To be sure, it will take time to repair the current breach between Japan and China, and perhaps our proposal is a bridge too far at present.  But the same fragility in the relationship between Tokyo and Beijing that could make a near-term settlement difficult also makes it dangerous to let the problem go unaddressed.  It could again produce sparks that lead to a serious crisis.