Photograph by: Yoshikazu Tsuno , AFP
It seems that whenever the words “Asia” and “islands” come up, it is always in the context of renewed regional tensions.
And while that was certainly true last week with a flare-up of incidents between China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, there has been a turn for the better concerning the dispute in the East China Sea.
Of course, with relations tense between Beijing and Tokyo in the past few years, any improvement in Sino-Japanese ties is good for regional stability. Last week, a nine-member delegation from the Japanese Diet (led by ex-foreign minister Masahiko Komura) made its way to Beijing to meet with top legislator Zhang Dejiang, one of the highest-ranking members in China’s Politburo Standing Committee.
China and Japan have been at odds in recent years over territorial rights to a small group of islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus and Tokyo, the Senkakus. Emotions were further incensed when China created an Air Defence Notification Zone over the islands last November, followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine for Japanese war dead last December. A group of Japanese lawmakers made a separate visit to the shrine — home to 14 Class-A war criminals — in April.
So Komura’s visit (at the head of a delegation chosen from the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union in Tokyo) in itself can be seen as a step forward in improving ties. Last year, a similar visit had to be cancelled because, as The Economist put it, “the group was told no high Communist Party officials would meet it.”
Tokyo-based Asahi Shimbun reported Komura said Abe would like to hold a high-level summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC conference later this year. And while Chinese officials said they are willing to continue some form of dialogue — the key being “to determine if the Abe administration views Beijing as a friend or foe” — Beijing is non-committal concerning a Xi-Abe summit.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that Beijing is content to continue dialogue, but remains adamant that Tokyo is to blame for recent tensions.
“China has always welcomed people from all walks of life in Japan … to make positive moves to improve China-Japan relations,” the Xinhua quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as saying. Hua added that events such as the Yasukuni Shrine visits “pose severe political obstacles for high-level exchanges.”
“Whoever started the trouble should end it,” Hua told Xinhua, not so subtly pointing the finger at Abe. Other reports quoted Hua as stating: “The crux of this (Sino-Japanese) problem is clear to all.”
Japan also has its misgivings. In an editorial, the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Shimbun said: “It is unfortunate that the Chinese side remains obstinate” toward Komura’s offer of a “forward-looking proposal.”
“We believe most of the causes of the current stalemate in bilateral ties stem from the Chinese side,” the editorial said, citing the continued presence of Chinese boats in the waters near the disputed islands. “It is time that China thought seriously about how to bring an end to ‘mutually detrimental’ relations.”
It would appear that Komura’s visit did little to change the underlying distrust both sides have for one another. Observers speculate that the decline in Sino-Japanese trade in recent years has dented both economies — currently ranked second- and third-largest in the world, respectively — and the visit may be an attempt to re-assume a closer business-only relationship. Of course, that would mean the fundamental causes of tensions between Beijing and Tokyo remain unaddressed.
It will only take another misstep to re-escalate tensions. But, as the saying goes, the road has to start somewhere.
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