Whether you call them the Senkaku or the Diaoyu Islands, everyone can agree that the dispute over these small rocks is officially a diplomatic disaster between Asia’s two largest economic powerhouses. These serene and uninhabited rocks are a source of great strain on the Sino-Japanese relationship, and tensions don’t look like they’ll die down anytime soon.
Most recently, the Sino-Japanese scuffle erupted in a media slam by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe criticized the Chinese government for setting pre-conditions for negotiations over the islands. China had demanded Japan officially recognize that a dispute exists, a condition to which Japan has not conceded. The Japanese government is sticking by its stance that recognizing the dispute would diminish the Japanese government’s claim over the islands. If the Japanese government ever wants to deal with the dispute substantively, it will have to find a creative alternative to this long-held position. Although the long-term logic of the strategy is dubious, this position does serve to placate nationalist voices within the country.
And now, another diplomatic fuse has been lit. Beijing is now refusing to set high-level bilateral talks with Tokyo until Abe reveals whether or not he will be visiting the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the day Japan was defeated in World War II. Located in Tokyo, the shrine is widely seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism as it has enshrined many convicted war criminals.
Abe’s decision to visit the Yasukuni Shrine could have far-reaching consequences. If he is serious about improving ties with China, the answer is obvious. Beijing’s hesitation to set negotiations until Abe makes a decision seems prudent: it would be a huge loss of face for the Chinese Communist Party, who rules a country still soaked with anti-Japanese sentiment over historical grievances.
If Abe’s hard stance on China makes resolving the Senkaku dispute more difficult, it hasn’t weakened his political stance at home. On July 21, parliamentary elections in Japan’s upper house are expected to cement Abe’s leadership. China will have to resign itself to dealing with Abe for the next three years, and China may have to amend its negotiation strategy to this new reality.
Any prospect of a Sino-Japan summit later this summer to resolve the territorial dispute appears to be dead. In March 2013, Natsuo Yamaguchi, Abe’s envoy, had called for a high-level summit in Beijing to repair relations between the two Asian countries. The most recent developments in the Senkaku saga show very little movement in the positions of both China and Japan.
The Senkaku Islands have been contested for years. Last September, three of the islands were unilaterally placed under Japanese state ownership. In May of this year, controversy sprung up again between Japan and China when two Chinese academics suggested in People’s Daily that the Ryuku chain of islands, including Okinawa, could actually belong to China.
As both countries continue to push each other, substantive negotiations over this territorial dispute seem farther off than ever before.
Written by Yang Fu. Yang is a graduate student from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Photo: Uotsuri Island, one of disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea / AP