The New York Times misinterprets a major story out of Asia today on Sino-Japanese relations. Reporter Jane Perlez writes that Beijing and Tokyo “effectively agreed to disagree over the sovereignty of disputed islands in the East China Sea” and move towards a resumption of diplomatic and security discussions. This, in turn, would move relations out of the deep freeze they have been in for several years and facilitate a meeting next week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who have not yet had a substantive dialogue with each other. Yet the official statement by both sides makes no mention of sovereignty or any dispute. This is a crucial point for Japan, which refuses to open itself up to legal or diplomatic claims that might undermine its position.
The islands in dispute are the Senkakus (Diaoyu in Chinese), which lie off the northeastern tip of Taiwan, and have become a flash point for Asian tensions since Japan’s former government nationalized several of the islands in 2012. Captured from Japan at the end of World War II, the Senkakus were returned to Tokyo in 1972 with the reversion of Okinawa. The official U.S. position is that Japan maintains administrative control over the islands, but Washington does not take a position on sovereignty.
Since the nationalization two years ago, Japanese and Chinese maritime patrol and coast-guard vessels have repeatedly confronted each other in the waters surrounding the islands, and Chinese fishing boats have also regularly entered the same waters. It was over these islands that China declared its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) last year, causing a spike in tension with the United States, Japan, and Korea. Tensions became so high that, in a presidential first, Barack Obama publicly stated that any attack on the Senkakus would fall under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan mutual-defense treaty, thereby signaling American intent to help defend the islands.
In the Times’ telling, Tokyo essentially acknowledged that there is a sovereignty dispute over the islands. The actual statement released by both sides is rather different, noting instead that “both sides recognized that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands . . .” Japanese officials, alarmed that the Times’ reporting could create a storyline that Tokyo is backing down on its previous stance, have been quick to underscore the actual wording of the agreement. It seems clear that Japan is in no way admitting a dispute over sovereignty of the islands, but has worked with Beijing to craft language suitable to both sides that will allow the important second announcement to go forward: “through dialogue and consultation, [Japan and China] would prevent the deterioration of the situation, establish a crisis management mechanism and avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances.”
This is indeed a breakthrough from recent years, in which the specter of an accidental clash between Japanese and Chinese paramilitary forces seemed to grow each month. While there is reason to doubt whether the two sides will be able to keep relations on an even keel for the long-run, at least in the short term the political leadership of both has indicated a willingness to look at the larger question of their bilateral relationship. That may reflect a Chinese conclusion that Prime Minister Abe will not back down from his mild military buildup or renewed outreach to nations around the region. Alternatively, Beijing might have concluded that it is better to let the issue sit while it continues to build up its military strength.
The fact that the world’s second- and third-largest economies have been on a tripwire over the islands for years is an indication of continued risk in Asia. Yesterday’s agreement is an important step towards stabilizing the situation, again in the short-run, and giving more constructive diplomacy a chance. Yet it is a significant misinterpretation to see it as an agreement to disagree over who owns the Senkakus. On that score, Tokyo will almost certainly never alter its position that denies even the existence of such a disagreement.