A path to peace in land, resource disputes

A Taiwan-Japan agreement on fisheries near the Senkaku islands sets a model for China in avoiding dangerous moves on island claims.

Xinhua/AP Photo
One of the small islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese is seen from a Chinese marine surveillance plane last December. Taiwan also claims the islands.

When nations clash over land and resources, peace can often come like a cat moving in small, quiet steps. A good example is an agreement announced Wednesday between Taiwan and Japan.

The pact allows the two Asian democracies to share the fisheries around a group of islands claimed by both countries but administered for decades by Japan. Known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese, the islands have become a dangerous flash point between Beijing and Tokyo, driven by China’s strategy to dominate the sea lanes of East Asia.

Unlike nondemocratic China, however, both Taiwan and Japan recognize the wisdom of sidestepping sensitive sovereignty claims and instead seek joint use of natural resources. China’s use of force to stake its island claims has had the effect of forging alliances among its neighbors.

The pacifist approach by Taipei and Tokyo is a pragmatic way to avoid war, create prosperity, and build up enough trust to settle a dispute later. This kind of shared economic activity is done, of course, “without prejudice to the final delimitation,” as lawyers like to say.

China, as expected, erupted with anger at the agreement. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that just a few years ago China was in talks with Japan for joint development of gas reserves in disputed waters of the South China Sea. Back then, Beijing’s leaders still adhered to the late Deng Xiaoping’s advice to shelve territorial differences and conduct joint development.

To be sure, a sharing of economic activity on disputed territory does not always guarantee resolution of political differences. One example is Secretary of State John Kerry’s strategy to boost the chances for Israeli-Palestinian talks by improving the economic flow between the two peoples. 

In his visit to the region, Mr. Kerry announced a plan Tuesday to boost the livelihoods of Palestinians by encouraging investment through US government and private-sector funds. A key part of such a plan would be an easing of Israeli checkpoints on Palestinian workers, allowing more cross-border commerce and investment.

“Economic growth will help us be able to provide ... an atmosphere, within which people have greater confidence about moving forward,” he said.

Such hopes for an “economic peace,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls it, will be difficult as long as Israel controls so much of Palestinian land, airspace, water, and communications.

The world does not lack for examples of mutual investment as a pacifying tool. Russia and Norway agreed in 2010 to joint oil development in a disputed area of the Barents Sea. Mexico and the United States agreed this year to jointly manage oil drilling along a maritime boundary. Many bilateral agreements have taken place in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Singapore.

The pacts set a model for China to follow. “Joint development can probably provide some tactical level victories in managing flash points,” said Lloyd Thrall of the RAND Corp. at a recent hearing of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. But he warns that such agreements “treat symptoms rather than addressing root causes.”

Buying time, however, is a common strategy in diplomacy. It allows nationalist passions to cool and a common purpose between nations to grow.

Lest Beijing’s new leaders forget, Japan and China declared in a summit meeting just six years ago to make the East China Sea a “sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.”

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