In China-Japan island clash, a peaceful diversion

A dangerous confrontation between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands can be deflected if China returns to the idea of laying aside sovereignty claims in favor of seeking joint development of any seabed wealth.

The islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China are seen in this photograph taken on a surveillance plane on Dec. 13, 2012, and provided by the State Oceanic Administration of the People's Republic of China.

With China and Japan appearing close to a conflict over a few small islands, it’s time to pull out a practical tool of peacemaking: Divert the contending parties toward a shared interest. That tactic often calms the waters, creates trust, and buys time.

Since 2010, either by mishap or design, Tokyo and Beijing have escalated a confrontation over ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku islands (known in China as the Diaoyu islands). What has largely been forgotten is that the two Asian giants were talking only a few years ago about joint exploration of potential oil wealth in the South China Sea. They played down the issue of sovereignty in favor of common economic goals.

To deflect the current tensions, China must return to the idea of seeking a joint effort in tapping the oil and gas around the islands rather than assert its dominance in the region. The idea isn’t new. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping set down the wise policy regarding the islands of “shelve rivalry, jointly develop.” And last September, Taiwan – which also claims the islands – officially proposed joint petroleum exploration.

Other Asian nations have considered joint ventures in offshore drilling, often to avoid a flare-up of territorial claims. In 2009, Brunei and Malaysia settled a boundary dispute and then tied it to joint development of oil. Vietnam and Malaysia agreed in 1992 to seek joint development without settling rival claims of seabed sovereignty. Last year, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III suggested that all the nations that lay claim to various islands in the South China Sea –  such as the Paracels, the Spratlys, the Scarborough Shoals – should benefit from the seabed wealth.

Achieving such agreements isn’t always easy. After decades of work, for example, the United States and Mexico finally agreed last month to manage one of their maritime boundaries through joint regulation of oil drilling in the area. Britain and Argentina have been hot and cold about joint development off the Falkland Islands.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this type of peacemaking was the secret talks in 1992 between Israelis and Palestinians over issues of sharing water resources. Mediated by a Norwegian group, those talks created enough trust that they helped pave the way for the 1995 Oslo peace accords.

Indeed, countries often avoid official talks over a contentious bilateral issue by quietly or indirectly allowing private parties, such as an eminent group of scholars, to first come up with an agreement on the matter. If those initial talks fail, officials suffer no public shame. Conflict can be avoided.

Few experts on China expect Beijing to back off anytime soon in its campaign to assert sovereignty over islands in its surrounding seas – some even hundreds of miles from its shores. But with its need for oil growing – demand is expected to double by 2030 – China does have common ground with its neighbors, such as Japan. Sharing the wealth in their own watery backyards is far preferable to risking war over some deserted islands. What binds neighbors is greater than what divides them.

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