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Handle Diaoyu issue with care

By Kumiko Haba | China Daily | Updated: 2012-09-04 08:09

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's sudden visit to China on Sept 4-5 amid rising tensions between Japan and China over the Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands in Japan) dispute reflects the United States' role in Sino-Japanese relations.

The balance of power in East Asia has undergone a fundamental change since the territorial dispute deteriorated in 2010. The region has seen the rise of China and South Korea and the relative decline in Japanese leadership. The change in the power balance has also caused a change in the international community's role in the region. But Japanese government has to properly maintain national sovereignty.

It is difficult for the US and Japan to continue to be as prosperous as they were until the end of the 20th century irrespective of who their leaders are or will be. The Americans and Japanese face the reality of the world global economy. The biggest task for the US and Japan is to correctly analyze the current situation, strengthen their political leadership for stability and use the change in the power balance to move toward peace and prosperity.

Emerging economies, including China, are developing at a fast pace but they still face many economic and political challenges. China may need more than half a century to become a real powerhouse in every respect.

So the US, China and Japan must not use armed provocation, because it will threaten international peace and could lead to a grave crisis. Besides, countries should not forget that nuclear proliferation in East Asia remains a big problem. And using military power to resolve a dispute in the region will lead to mayhem and disaster no country wants to see.

Many territorial disputes have led to war. The chances of an armed conflict breaking out become high when a country tries to redraw its borders or claim a piece of land forcibly. The Malvinas Islands (known to the British as the Falklands) and the Yugoslavian conflicts provide good examples. Keeping this in mind, Japan and China both have to move cautiously to resolve the Diaoyu Islands dispute through peaceful discussions, not confrontation.

Japanese right-wing forces' provocations and Chinese activists' emotional reaction will not help resolve the dispute. Instead, they will make it more complicated. For instance, on Sept 2, an investigation team from the Tokyo metropolitan government conducted a survey around the Diaoyu Islands, which will create trouble for both Japan and China's central governments. Both countries need to take measures to keep such nationalist elements under check to prevent them from taking provocative actions that could lead to a conflict, and keep each other informed of the developments in their respective countries to avoid misunderstanding.

Neither country can afford to bear the economic and other losses that an overall deterioration in bilateral ties would cause, which could be devastating in times of a slowing global economy.

Territorial disputes are like "Pandora's box" common to all regions. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a typical example. But even the US and Australia, and South American countries have struggled (or are struggling) with territorial questions regarding indigenous people's land and other rights.

Perhaps it is not possible to resolve a territorial dispute in a way that satisfies both parties equally. But we can maintain the status quo (even though it may not be acceptable to one or both parties) to prevent the situation from spinning out of control. The parties can then engage in long-term dialogue or approach the international court for a resolution. Besides, resolving the Diaoyu Islands dispute is not the most urgent or paramount task for either Japan or China.

The US, on its part, should realize that an unstable East Asia doesn't serve its interests. The White House should know by now that it has to collaborate with the emerging economies of East Asia to revive the American economy.

The truth is that no country will benefit if the tension between China and Japan intensifies. Many may say that the US and Europe would be able to fish in the troubled waters of East Asia without directly taking part in any conflict. But we should not forget that a troubled East Asian economy means a troubled world economy. Therefore, it makes all the sense in the world not to sacrifice East Asia's economic cooperation and hinder the ongoing free trade agreement talks.

It is a pity that the Japanese flag was yanked from the car of Japan's ambassador to China by some unidentified men. Also regrettably, a Japanese group conducted a survey around the disputed islands. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments are obliged to keep these behaviors on a tight leash, or else they could compromise both countries' interests.

But it was heartening to hear an increasing number of Chinese people calling for calm and rational action and there are also voices in Japan calling for cool-minded approach to the problem.

It is not true that weakened diplomacy in the "East Asian community" is what led to the current situation. It's high time the region's countries appreciated the advantages of working together as a group. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union show what regional integration can do even in non-economic fields - for example, they can nullify small territorial disputes.

So what should be done?

Japan and China better shelve their dispute and start dealing with more important issues that have been piling up on their shelves. They can start cooperating more deeply in trade and economic fields, as starters, and extend that cooperation to areas like energy (by including Russia).

Territorial disputes are zero-sum games. In contrast, economic development and cooperation are win-win pursuits. In the 40th year of the normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan, friendship, mutual trust and mutually beneficial development and prosperity should become the cornerstone of our relationship, setting an example for the rest of the world.

The author is a professor of East Asian regional studies at Aoyama Gakuin University and research fellow at Harvard University.

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