By Dingping Guo.

The Japanese government’s decision to purchase and nationalize the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) islands in September 2012 triggered a series of drastic and dramatic responses from China. Not only there were huge anti-Japan protests and demonstrations in many cities across China, but also various administrative, legal and military measures have been taken against Japan’s provocations. Beijing has repeatedly sent ships and planes to the disputed waters in East China Sea in order to show its sovereignty over the island and strengthen its position. As a result Sino-Japan relations have been plunged into the most serious crisis since the two countries normalized their ties during the early 1970s. The latest alleged radar-lock incidents indicate that the two countries face the real possibility of military conflict, even to the extent of another war.

Considering the complex nature of the Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes, the historical animosity between China and Japan, and the difficult security situation in East Asia, the following three scenarios should be taken into account during the short, mid and long term if we want to maintain peace, stability and growth in the region.

First, a crisis management mechanism should be established between the military forces and maritime administrations jointly by China and Japan, so as to prevent the escalation of tensions, especially the breakout of an unintended war between the two countries. Currently, China and Japan are struggling to find solutions to their domestic economic and political problems, and should focus more on peaceful developments.

However, after the Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes were ignited again, not only more resources are used on this kind of unproductive aspects, which would greatly expedite the arms race and seriously hinder economic recovery and growth, but also more dangers and even military conflicts are becoming inevitable. In fact, since China sent more ships and planes to show its sovereignty on Diaoyu islands, Japanese military vessels and aircrafts have often made provocative gestures by tailing Chinese vessels on the high seas. Both countries scrambled fighter jets several times and the two navies have locked horns, which could lead to possible military accidents. Under these unpredictable and precarious circumstances, the liaison and communication between two navies and maritime authorities are imperative for two countries. In this sense, the hotline should be restored as quickly as possible.

Second, wisdom and courage are needed from Chinese and Japanese leaders to put bilateral relations back on normal track and develop the mutually beneficial strategic partnership. Great and remarkable achievements have been made in Sino-Japan relations during the past four decades since the two countries decided to end their abnormal hostility. One of the most important achievements is the huge and increasing trade volume between China and Japan. Together with education, culture and travel, the two countries have formed highly interdependent relations.

Meanwhile, as the second and third largest economies in the world, both China and Japan are playing important roles in regional and global affairs. That is to say, in contrast with the uninhabited islands in East China Sea, there are more important and more strategic issues that need to be addressed by the leaders from China and Japan, such as FTA negotiations, climate change and environmental cooperation, and non-traditional security issues. The best strategy for current leaders is to wait for the wisdom of future generation’s wisdom to better improve the mutual benefits, just as Deng Xiaoping emphasized. The two countries should divert attention away from the hotspot of Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes and steer bilateral relations to a mutually beneficial partnership. In this case, leaders in the two countries must have great courage to resist the temptation of catering to popular sentiments and even frenzied nationalism. During times of crisis, true leaders must lead the public and must not be misled by populism.

Third, the real and ultimate resolution of the territorial dispute over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands will take a long time only after China, Japan and the US establish more balanced great triangular relations and substantial progress is made in regional cooperation and community-building in East Asia. The Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes have been a historical issue closely intertwined with the struggle for security and resources after Japan illegally occupied the islands as a trophy together with Taiwan one hundred and eighteen years ago. After Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Powers in 1945, all territories including the Diaoyu islands that were stolen from its neighbors, should have been renounced by Japan. After the end of the Second World War, as China’s war-time ally, the US occupied Japan and illegally included Diaoyu Islands in the geographical scope of Okinawa. When the US and Japan reached an agreement on the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control, the US returned Okinawa illegally once again together with Diaoyu Islands to Japan’s administrative control, which was rebuked by Chinese government and people from its very beginning.

During the cold war period, the US and Japan formed a military alliance against the communist countries. At the end of the cold war, the Japan-US alliance did not phase out at all, but was redefined and strengthened so as to balance and even contain the rise of China. When the US reformulated its global strategy and placed more emphasis on the Pacific Asia, Japan has made full use of this opportunity to fortify itself as America’s petit partner in East Asia. Although China and ASEAN countries made great efforts to promote regional cooperation and community-building in East Asia, these substantial achievements are limited due to Japan’s negative attitude and the US’s excessive influence. These historical and present problems led to a further aggravation of the security situation in East Asia in general and Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes between China and Japan in particular.

Dingping Guo is professor of political science in School of International Relations and Public Affairs of Fudan University, concurrently serving as Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Nottingham. Before joining Nottingham, he was Director of the Center for Japanese Studies (2008-2012) at Fudan University.