It doesn't really matter who actually has ownership of the Senkaku Islands, be it the central government, a local government or someone in the private sector.
However, if it comes down to a choice between the Tokyo metropolitan government and the central government, it would be preferable to have the central government own the islands.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has clearly said that if the Tokyo metropolitan government became the owner he would take provocative action against China. If China took some sort of diplomatic or military action, the Tokyo metropolitan government would be unable to respond.
National ownership of the islands can be encouraged in the sense it would be preferable to having the Tokyo metropolitan government own it.
However, with the central government now in the picture, China and Taiwan have strengthened their opposition. With Japan having taken a step forward, Beijing can no longer afford to simply ignore the matter.
I believe the central government should explain to China in the following manner: "If the Tokyo metropolitan government owned the islands, Governor Ishihara will undoubtedly take provocative action. We are taking over ownership in order to prevent the issue from further escalating."
I am not saying Japan should make concessions. What I am saying is that Japan should take action after recognizing once again the advantageous situation it faces regarding the Senkaku Islands.
Japan's arguments are based on a Cabinet decision made in 1895 to incorporate the Senkaku Islands within Okinawa Prefecture. While the statement is often made that the Senkakus are "Japan's inherent territory," can territory really be called inherent if it has only belonged to Japan for about 100 years?
On the other hand, it is clear from a historical standpoint that China extended military influence over the area around the Senkaku Islands from about the 14th century. China therefore argues that since the Senkakus are part of Taiwan and because Taiwan is a part of China, therefore the Senkakus belong to China.
Because Japan relinquished its territorial rights to the Chishima islands and Taiwan under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, China's argument cannot be described as completely baseless, even though there may be a difference of interpretation.
While this may be difficult for the Japanese to accept, they should first recognize that the Senkaku Islands are not Japan's "inherent territory," but a "disputed area."
Based on that recognition, we will have to look at how Japan and China have handled the issue until now.
During the negotiations leading up to the normalization of relations in 1972, Premier Chou En-lai, in a meeting with Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, said, "We should reach agreement on the major issues while leaving minor differences unsettled."
In negotiations over the 1978 Japan-China peace and friendship treaty, Deng Xiaoping, the vice premier, said, "The next generation should work on those issues that our generation does not have the wisdom to resolve."
Both of those comments reveal a stance that placed emphasis on the friendship between the two nations by effectively tabling various issues, including the one related to the Senkakus.
In other words, China acknowledged Japan's effective control over the islands and indicated its intention not to resolve the issue through armed conflict. Japan was in an advantageous position by having the issue placed on the back burner.
A key incident that focused attention on the Senkaku issue was the 2010 collision between a Chinese trawler and two Japan Coast Guard patrol boats. I believe there was an error in trying to handle the incident through Japanese domestic law. Instead, the trawler should have been chased out of Japanese waters under the Japan-China fisheries agreement and any further action should have been left up to China.
A similar stance should be taken regarding underground natural resources. It is the accepted wisdom of the international community to separate issues related to resources when trying to resolve problems, because there is the possibility it could become directly linked to territorial conflict.
The worrying point is that both Japanese politicians and the public believe that the proper course to take is a hard-line stance against China. However, diplomacy that caters to public opinion will damage national interests.
If Japan should take a hard-line stand, China will also be forced to take a similar stand. If that should lead to a military clash, Japan would lose thoroughly because of the overwhelming force difference between the Chinese military and the Self-Defense Forces.
It is also overly optimistic to believe that the United States will protect Japan under the security treaty. The United States will not be able to defeat China in the Far East where it is at a weak geographic disadvantage.
We will have to ask if the United States would really choose a course of all-out war with China for the sake of Japan.
Moreover, the United States is concerned about closer ties between Japan and a China that has become a superpower. While the United States on the surface is taking a neutral position on the Senkaku issue, it holds the belief that it would not be completely to its disadvantage to have a certain level of tension between Japan and China.
Japan's argument will also not stand up internationally. It is the accepted wisdom of the international community not to escalate territorial conflicts. Japan will become isolated in the international community if it provokes China based on logic that is only acceptable domestically.
The current situation on the Senkaku issue is the one in which Japan enjoys the most advantageous position. Politicians and the public should more calmly think about the merits of tabling the issue, rather than criticize that situation as being weak-kneed.
(This article was compiled from an interview by Soichiro Akiyama.)
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Ukeru Magosaki was a Foreign Ministry diplomat who served as director-general of what was then the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau as well as ambassador to Iran.
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