A Six Point Plan to Solve the Senkaku Island Dispute

December 29, 2014 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Northeast Asia

A Six Point Plan to Solve the Senkaku Island Dispute

Before the next big flare up, here’s how Japan and China can solve the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute.


What to do about those half dozen or so rock formations in the East China Sea, some of them previously used by encampments of fishermen but none presently inhabited and none truly inhabitable?  



Although Japan and China seem to have temporarily calmed their headline-making disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, disagreement over sovereignty remains intense, and the pace of Chinese incursions into the immediate waters of the islands reportedly has not slowed.

For China, the fact that Japan still controls the islands reflects an unfair post-World War II settlement over which it had no influence, and Japan’s current intransigence on the matter also suggests a lack of Japanese repentance for its WWII-era aggression. For Japan, China’s decision to invent new crises over a matter that had been solved, and that would seem to have little larger importance, suggests that a rising People’s Republic of China will be a potentially aggressive force in the region, not only about this issue but many others, for years and decades to come. Thus, compromise becomes difficult for both sides.

Last month, I wrote an opinion article with Professor Akikazu Hashimoto of the J.F.Oberlin University Graduate School and Wu Xinbo of China’s Fudan University in Shanghai proposing a path forward.  I admire the courage of Hashimoto and Wu given how fraught, and emotional, this issue has become in the relations between their two countries.  And, of course, it concerns the United States as well.  Washington does not take a position on the question of who really owns the islands, but does recognize that Japan currently administers them and acknowledges that therefore the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies over these territories. This fact does not obligate the United States to any particular response in the event of a crisis but certainly implicates it in how any further flare-up might play out.

The plan we proposed had six elements.  I summarize them here in order to respond subsequently to one frequent concern I have heard since the original was published, mostly from American colleagues—the charge that the package deal would not be entirely fair to Japan.  In fact, I believe it would very much serve Japanese, and American, interests.  This is the package that both China and Japan would agree to in full:

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)      But 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 decisionmaking 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;

Because Japan would in effect be acknowledging China’s claim to the Senkakus/Diaoyus under this proposal, and allowing China equal access to them going forward, some have viewed this package as favorable to Beijing.

I would submit however that those making such critiques are potentially overlooking several arguments:

  1. Most fundamentally, the issue of who controls the islands is itself relatively unimportant compared with the broader Japan-China relationship.  As such, one should not worry too much about which country would get 51 percent of the immediate benefits, if the effects on the broader relationship are favorable to both.

  2. It is significant that Beijing would agree not to contest Japan’s legally binding administrative rights to the islands under this plan; not all the concessions would come from Tokyo.

  3. Because the Law of the Sea Treaty is ambiguous about what economic benefits should accrue to the owner of small and effectively uninhabitable land formations like the Senkaku/Diaoyu, there is no particular concession that Japan would be making on the economic front.

  4. Japan has done much on the history question over the years, but showing a willingness to go the extra mile at this stage would be wise policy, given that not only China but Korea sees the current Japanese government in particular as insufficiently sensitive to Japan’s historical wrongdoings.

  5. The first point out of the six listed above is crucial.  By this plan, China would agree, for example, not to challenge Japan’s sovereignty over any of the Ryukyu islands in the future (Okinawa but especially smaller, less populous ones closer to Chinese shores).  It has not made any such claims yet officially.  But some individual Chinese analysts have suggested that Beijing should consider doing so in the future.  Precluding such a possibility would have major value, and should help quell Japan’s more general fears about China’s rise.

  6. By establishing this sort of precedent, the door might even open to greater negotiation and compromise involving China and Southeast Asian neighbors over the South China Sea.  Anything that began to help with that conundrum would be of enormous strategic benefit to the region (even if it would not directly involve Tokyo).

Of course, since three academics wrote the article, Tokyo could modestly alter any particular provision it found overly generous in an initial bargaining position. But a package like the above should be seriously contemplated.  Strong countries like Japan and the United States should have the confidence and foresight to see the bigger picture in a case like this and attempt to negotiate a new “peace of the brave” with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  And they should do so soon, before another unexpected development risks producing yet another acute crisis over the matter.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Wikimedia/Public Domain