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Overcoming East Asia’s Sovereignty Disputes

BRUSSELS – China’s recent elevation of its claim to the Diaoyu Islands to a “core interest” has made the prospect of resolving its sovereignty dispute with Japan, which governs the islands, even trickier. Indeed, the recent publication by the official People’s Daily of two Chinese scholars’ commentary questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa suggests that the authorities have scant interest in ending the dispute anytime soon. So, with China hardening its multiple sovereignty claims throughout the South and East China Seas, can any mechanism be found to resolve these conflicts peacefully?

Disputes over territorial sovereignty are, perhaps, the thorniest of all diplomatic disagreements. They can seem intractable, because they are directly connected not only to national pride, but also to national security.

So it is no surprise that governments are usually reluctant to take even the smallest steps toward resolving such disputes. They fear not only domestic political backlash, but also the prospect that their adversary, or adversaries, will interpret a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, and thus become even more demanding.

The ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas – involving China, Taiwan, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia – are particularly poisonous, because they also carry a heavy burden of historical grievance.

Koreans perceive in their dispute with Japan an echo of their country’s long and bitter occupation by Imperial Japan. China associates its South and East China Sea claims with the darkest period in its history – the “century of humiliation,” when foreign powers severely impinged upon its territorial integrity. Today, China’s extraordinarily rapid economic and political rise has disposed both its government and public to seek to redress old wounds from that period, and not to offer anything in exchange along the way.

But, in today’s Asia, these countries’ behavior with respect to their sovereignty disputes, and how they respond to others’ actions (and inaction) will have a decisive impact on regional security and prosperity. Indeed, these disputes may prove to be a litmus test of China’s sincerity regarding its commitment to a “peaceful” global rise.

Unless China demonstrates that it can live peacefully with its neighbors, its government’s claim that the international community has nothing to fear from the country’s growing power will be doubted. And the United States’ dexterity in addressing these disputes will help to determine whether America’s strategic “pivot to Asia” contributes to forging a regional security order that is acceptable to an increasingly assertive China.

Because bilateral talks run too great a risk of “lost face,” multilateral discussions probably offer the best prospect for resolution of East Asia’s sovereignty disputes. The problem is that China not only is unaccustomed to multilateral procedures, but that it recoils from them. China’s history has not prepared it to work within such a framework, and its yearning for status – even more pronounced now than when it was impoverished – will make it difficult to gain Chinese acceptance of a multilateral solution.

As a result, China, which is particularly concerned to keep the US out of the negotiations, prefers to pursue bilateral talks, knowing full well that such an approach will invariably create a zero-sum game in which one side can be portrayed as protecting its national interest, and the other as having betrayed it. China will need considerable convincing if it is to participate in a framework of regional policy consultation, coordination, and compromise aimed at muting the tensions over sovereignty disputes. But, unless China is brought into such a framework, its sense of isolation will grow, as will the temptation to define its interests in ways that are irreconcilable with those of its neighbors.

Not surprisingly, given its own structures, the European Union prefers the multilateral approach. Since 1995, when China occupied Mischief Reef, a maritime feature claimed by the Philippines, the EU has encouraged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to strengthen its code of conduct for the region.

Even to begin to talk about a regional solution to East Asia’s sovereignty disputes, however, requires preparing the ground. The first step must be to reduce diplomatic tensions. Fortunately, this appears to be taking place. Having gone to the brink, the leaders of both China and Japan appear to have taken a direct hand in softening their countries’ rhetoric.

But no one should think that this lowering of the temperature is permanent. Other steps are needed to create habits of civil diplomacy around hot-button territorial claims.

Here, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” which calls on all parties to refrain from antagonistic behavior, resolve disputes through peaceful means, and establish a code of conduct for cooperation in the East China Sea, is a clear step forward. While Taiwan’s sovereignty dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese) – involves non-negotiable claims, the resources surrounding the islands can nevertheless be shared, nurturing habits of closer regional cooperation in the process.

Ma’s constructive approach to reducing tensions in the region would benefit all parties concerned. Although adversaries may not reach agreement in the short term on the issue of sovereignty, they should be able to find a formula that allows them to share the resources, natural or otherwise, of the islands and the nearby waters.

Europe experienced something similar with the sharing of resources in the North Sea. Japan and Taiwan have already started along a parallel road in their joint fisheries talks. It is now time for China and Japan, the region’s two paramount economies, to put their people’s prosperity and security first in the interest of successful shared development.