In September 1972, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka went to Beijing to formalize the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
During his meeting with Premier Chou En-lai, Tanaka abruptly raised the issue of the Senkaku Islands. Their conversation is described in detail in a diplomatic document disclosed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in December last year.
“What do you think about the Senkaku Islands? There are people who come to me with various comments about the issue,” Tanaka told Chou.
In response, according to the document, Chou said: “It is not good to discuss this at this time. This has become an issue because of (the discovery of) oil (in the region). Neither Taiwan nor the Unites States would pay any attention (to the issue) if it were not for oil.”
The Japanese government’s position was, and still is, that there was no territorial dispute between Japan and China. Tanaka’s remark, therefore, caught the Foreign Ministry off guard.
Chou avoided pursuing the topic and changed the subject, apparently because of concerns the issue could hinder the talks for normalization of bilateral ties.
China regards this exchange between Tanaka and Zhou as an effective agreement between the two countries to “shelve” the issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in 1997, Zhang Xiangshan, former adviser to China’s Foreign Ministry, revealed another important diplomatic conversation on the issue between the two governments.
The exchange took place in 1978, immediately before the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China.
In August of that year, Japanese Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda visited Beijing to negotiate the treaty and met with Deng Xiaoping, who was China’s first vice premier.
Deng said to Sonoda: “It is not that there is no problem between China and Japan. There is the Diaoyu Islands problem, for instance,” according to Zhang. “But we should not touch it now. We should put off (tackling the issue) and discuss it without haste in coming years. We should not accept the argument that we cannot conclude a treaty if we fail to agree on such an issue in 10 years.”
In April that year, some 200 Chinese fishing boats gathered off the Senkaku Islands, and several dozen of them repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters illegally.
Sonoda called on Deng to make sure that such an incident would never happen again.
“Let us call it quits on this matter,” the Japanese foreign minister said to Deng, according to Zhang. “If I keep talking about it, I would put both you and myself in trouble.”
Zhang interpreted Sonoda’s words to mean that the top Japanese diplomat was proposing to shelve the matter, referring implicitly to not only the problem of fishing boats but also the issue of sovereignty.
Deng visited Japan in October 1978. In his news conference at the Japan National Press Club, Deng said when China and Japan negotiated the normalization of their diplomatic ties, they “promised not to touch the issue.” “This time as well, during the negotiations on the bilateral peace and friendship treaty, both sides agreed not to touch the issue.”
The Chinese government believes Deng’s remarks in Tokyo reflected an understanding by Japan and China to agree to shelve the Senkaku issue.
A white paper on the Diaoyu Islands released by the Chinese government on Sept. 25 this year echoed the view.
When China and Japan struck deals on the normalization of their diplomatic relationship and on the bilateral peace and friendship pact, the document said, “The previous generation of Chinese and Japanese leaders focused on the big picture of bilateral relations and came to share a common understanding and perception about the idea of shelving the Diaoyu issue and leaving it to a settlement in the future.”
The white paper criticized Japan’s move to nationalize the Senkaku Islands as running counter to the understanding and perception shared by the previous generation of Chinese and Japanese leaders.
Neither the 1972 Japan-China joint communique on the establishment of a formal diplomatic relationship between the two countries nor the 1978 bilateral peace and friendship treaty, however, includes any reference to the Senkaku Islands. Nor has there been any formal agreement between the leaders of the two nations on shelving the territorial issue.
The Japanese government’s position is that there has never been an agreement between Japan and China on shelving the issue or maintaining the status quo. Tokyo continues to claim that there is, in the first place, no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands between the two countries that needs to be resolved.
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PROPOSAL FOR JOINT DEVELOPMENT?
During the September 1972 talks on the normalization of the bilateral diplomatic relations, Tanaka proposed to Chou that the two countries jointly develop oil resources around the Senkaku Islands, according to Susumu Nikaido, who as chief Cabinet secretary was present at the meeting.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in 1997, Nikaido recounted their conversation. According to the late politician, Tanaka said to Chou, “Mr. Prime Minister, let us start joint oil development in the future, around the Senkaku Islands, shall we?” After pondering the proposal for a moment, Chou replied, “Mr. Tanaka, let us talk about it later.” Tanaka said no more about the topic, according to Nikaido’s account.
But this conversation is not mentioned in records of the meeting kept by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. In October, Hiroshi Hashimoto, who was also present at the meeting as head of the ministry’s section in charge of China, told The Asahi Shimbun that the conversation never took place.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry says Deng also proposed joint development of resources around the islands.
“We can consider joint development (between Japan and China) of resources around the Diaoyu Islands,” Deng was quoted as saying to Zenko Suzuki when the Lower House lawmaker of the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party visited China in May 1979.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also says that Beijing formally proposed to Tokyo through diplomatic channels in June that year to shelve both the sovereignty issue and joint resources development around the Senkaku Islands.
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