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China, Japan scholars seek way out in islands row
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jan 28, 2013

Diplomat: China underestimated on islands
Bangkok (UPI) Jan 29, 2013 - A former Japanese ambassador said that Tokyo underestimated China's possible reaction on the Senkaku Islands.

Uichiro Niwa, former Japanese ambassador to China, said Japan downplayed China's possible reaction to the announcement that Tokyo would buy the disputed Senkaku island archipelago from is private Japanese owner.

The group of islets is at the center of a bitter territorial dispute.

"The government of Japan transferred ownership from an individual to the state based on its domestic law but once an issue involves crossing waters, it becomes a diplomatic issue," Niwa said in a report in The Bangkok Post.

"I think (Japan) should have taken it more seriously and offered a diplomatic explanation to China. (Prime Minister Yoshihiko) Noda made (Chinese President) Hu Jintao lose face as head of state."

That led to "raging reactions" from Beijing, Niwa said.

"The Japanese side appeared to have underestimated it to a certain degree," he said.

The Senkakus, also known as the Daioyu Islands, are five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks. The archipelago is approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland coast and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japan's southernmost Ryukyu island of Okinawa.

The largest of the islands is 2 square miles in area but the surrounding waters not only are rich fishing grounds but geological testing has indicated that the seabed could contain valuable minerals and hydrocarbon deposits.

The dispute only really came to the forefront of Chinese-Japanese diplomacy after the rise of China as a military and economic power in recent years. But the issue dates to the 19th century with Japan's 1872 annexation of the Ryukyu archipelago, which includes Okinawa, and its 1895 subsequent annexation of Taiwan.

Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong said the island chain was an issue that was of little importance and could be put off for "later generations."

The territorial dispute threatened to involve the United States in 1996 when a U.S. State Department spokesman refused to say outright whether the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covered these disputed islands, a position since maintained by the U.S. government urged the two sides to seek a peaceful resolution to their differences.

Heightening the tension between the two nations' assertions to sovereignty are their subsequent claim to an Exclusive Economic Zone under provisions of the Third U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in November 1994.

Under UNCLOS III, a nation can claim an EEZ of 200 nautical miles from its coastline.

There remains the possibility that the dispute can be peacefully resolved. Speaking on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland, China's envoy to the United Nations in Geneva Liu Zhenmin remarked that Beijing hopes the new government in Tokyo will face up to historical reality "and take the right measures to overcome the difficulty in relations with China, and bring relations back on the track of normal development."

As fears grow over a simmering island dispute between China and Japan, scholars from both nations are hoping to lower the temperature with expansive talks in Washington in search of common ground.

The academics acknowledged that Tokyo and Beijing have major differences over the territories in the East China Sea but they saw one fundamental point in common -- neither side wanted the conflict to escalate into war.

A pair of US-based scholars from the two countries brought together experts -- four from China, three from Japan -- all day Sunday to hear out views on the islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The Chinese co-convener, Zheng Wang, found a "huge perception gap" between the two sides and said that rising nationalism in Asia's two largest economies made it difficult for leaders to take any action that could be seen as weak.

"Each side sees themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor -- 'they take aggressive behavior to change the status quo, and we are peace-loving countries,'" said Wang, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

China and Japan both claim the potentially energy-rich islands in the East China Sea with each side offering historical arguments. The United States says it takes no ultimate position but considers Tokyo to hold effective control.

Incidents in 2010 and 2012 sent tensions soaring between US-allied Japan and a rising China, with anti-Japanese protesters holding rare street demonstrations in China last year.

The Washington talks did not involve government representatives but several participants made suggestions in a personal capacity.

Tatsushi Arai, a visiting scholar of conflict resolution at George Mason University who convened the session with Wang, said his proposal amounted to "agree to disagree, through peaceful means."

Arai laid out three options, including Japan affirming its sovereignty but acknowledging China's position. Japan insists that the islands are not disputed territory.

Conversely, China could stand by its claims but acknowledge Japan's position, or the two sides could both acknowledge differences. The two countries could afterward work on a code of conduct for the waters.

With any of the options, "the Japanese side doesn't have to compromise on the territorial claim and the Chinese side does not have to; however, they agree to disagree," Arai said.

Nabuo Fukuda, a journalist at Japan's Asahi Shimbun who is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, said that the two nations could come together to begin new test-drilling for oil in the area of the islands.

If the two sides discover oil, they can discuss joint exploitation, he said.

"If oil is not found, maybe this issue won't disappear, but the experience working together and routinely will be helpful for future situations," he said.

Japan and China reached an agreement in 2008 billed by Tokyo as a joint development plan, but there has been no progress amid dispute over what was decided.

Robert Hathaway, the director of the Wilson Center's Asia program who helped organize the session, said the territorial row remained complex but that all scholars agreed it would be "heightened folly" to let the situation spin out of control.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year gave her blessing for an unrelated trip by former senior US officials to China and Japan to seek to calm tensions.

But US officials increasingly suspect that China is trying to challenge Japan's control in the area, leading Clinton on January 18 to issue a veiled warning to Beijing over its actions.


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