Bringing wisdom to Japan-China island clashes

Japan and China must de-escalate their dangerous nationalist conflict over 5 small islands with the diplomacy of restraint and patience.

AP Photo/Kyodo News
Two Japan Coast Guard ships, center and right in foreground, sail ahead of a fleet of Chinese surveillance ships as a Japanese media company's jet flies by near disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, Sept. 18.

When two people fight, they’re both at fault, goes a Japanese saying. That bit of wisdom and much more is needed as Japan and China escalate their words and actions over five tiny islands in the East China Sea.

The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, will be of some value for potential petroleum someday. But right now they’re really more of a proxy for a struggle of nationalist wills that could easily erupt in military confrontation.

The two East Asian giants are in desperate need of better diplomatic tools to make face-saving compromises. A hot line between Tokyo and Beijing would certainly help in case of any clash of warships or warplanes near the islands. So would concrete proposals on sharing seabed wealth and a rebuilding of the kind of personal ties between top leaders that was achieved during the 1980s.

Most of all, China and Japan must return to the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader who advised China to keep peace with its neighbors while it lifts itself from poverty. “Hide your strength; bide your time,” he said. And he also wanted to kick territorial disputes down the road to future – and perhaps wiser – generations.

The maritime wrestling match over the islands began two years ago with the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coast guard ships. It escalated with anti-Japanese protests in dozens of Chinese cities in recent days. China also threatens to send hundreds of fishing vessels to the islands, guarded by armed government ships.

Both sides promise not to back down, and yet each knows it must. The two countries risk $340 billion in bilateral trade. China risks a further “pivot” of American military forces to Asia. And Japan, mired in economic doldrums and the rising cost of an aging society, can hardly afford a foreign crisis.

Still, domestic politics is driving nationalist passions. China is in the midst of a delicate once-in-a-decade leadership transition, with the ruling Communist Party in need of excuses to maintain national unity. Japan faces elections this fall, with some politicians seeking to assert a stronger national identity.

The United States could have the ability to cool tensions, but its own election season has elevated China to the forefront in a contest over which political party can be tougher on Beijing.

East Asia is in need of institutions that can mediate differences. The US may be the defender of peace in the region, however, that works against it also playing the role of conciliator. Still, it should continue efforts to help Asian nations define a strategic agreement, as Europe has done, to keep the peace. Multilateral solutions are needed for many of Asia’s bilateral disputes.

The diplomacy of de-escalating a confrontation requires patience, restraint, and transparency to counter a tendency toward patriotic passion. At least for now, China and Japan have not sent naval warships to the islands, only coastal defense vessels. Beijing seems to have dampened recent protests. And Japan’s prime minister sought to diffuse the crisis by buying three of the islands from private owners.

These small steps hint at some wisdom and realism to maintain the status quo over the islands. Yet more is needed to build up mutual trust. Only then can each nation easily climb down from a showdown, and find a larger solution.

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