As Japan and China remain locked in a territorial row over a group of inhabited islets in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, no signs of a way out seem to be in sight. However, Akira Ishii, professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, suggests that past diplomatic documents that dealt with the issue may provide some clue that leaders of both countries can seriously consider. He dropped the hint in a special lecture he gave at Chuo University on January 25 under the title of “Diplomacy and Agreement in Writing/Tacit Agreement; Focusing on Postwar Japan-China Relations”.
The lecture, sponsored by Chuo’s Institute of Policy and Cultural Studies, was attended by a limited audience which included Motoei Sato, head of the institute, and three other professors and four graduate students. This writer was the sole undergraduate student present there.
Ishii began his discourse by referring to the origin of the word diplomacy (known in Japan as “gaiko”) which derives from the Greek verb “diplono” meaning to fold and referred to the folding metal plates used in ancient Roman time as formal documents.
According to British diplomat Sir Harold George Nicolson, diplomacy is an art based on and performed in written texts. He writes in his book “Diplomacy” that international crises have often been staved off through equivocal settlements and tacit understandings forged by the art of diplomacy.
As one example, Ishii mentioned the Japan-China Joint Communique (signed on September 29, 1972) which normalized the diplomatic relations between the two countries. It stated in its opening clause, “The abnormal state that has existed in the relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China is ended on the day this joint communique is issued.”
However, Japan faced a dilemma as it had signed in 1952 a treaty of peace terminating the state of war between Japan and the Republic of China. What did it do? The then Japanese government of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka declared "an end” to the Treaty of Peace between Japan and the Republic of China. The word “end” was opted because no signatories of a treaty are allowed under international law to rescind it in a unilateral way.
Speaking at the Research Institute of Japan later on October 6, 1972, then Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira took great pains to explain the option the government had taken. Citing the ancient Roman god called Janus, regarded as a guardian deity of entrances and doors who looks to the future and the past, he said, “He is a two-faced god whose appearances as seen from this side are quite different from those seen from that side. You may call it (the communique between Japan and the People’s Republic of China) just like Janus. But (when the document was signed) none of us could think of anything else.”
Ishii called it a good example of a deliberately ambivalent statement put together with the wisdom of diplomacy.
As an example of a tacit agreement, the professor referred to the so-called “1992 Consensus” that laid the political foundation for the relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Taipei’s position on the consensus called for it to abide by the policy of “One China with Respective Interpretations” while Beijing took the stance that both sides firmly maintain the “Principle of One China”. They did not conform to each other. But they are generally supposed to have agreed on the thorny “One China” issue by giving a tacit nod of approval to each other’s position.
Thus, diplomacy has avoided crises between states by leaving ambiguity in documents. On the other hand, however, Kobayashi said there are cases where failure by governments to disclose agreed documents leaves people unable to look into the diplomacy of their own country. He said the Senkaku Islands problem, one of the hottest diplomatic issues between Japan and China, is a typical example of such cases.
In September 2012, the Information Office of the Chinese State Council said in a statement, “When China normalized its diplomatic relations by concluding a treaty of peace and friendship with Japan in the 70s of the 20th century, senior leaders of both countries kept sight of the big picture and reached the understanding and consensus that the Diaoyu Islands issue should be shelved for future settlement.” However, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not disclosed that portion of the records of the August 10, 1978 meeting between then Japanese Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda and then Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping that dwelt on the bilateral relations including the Senkaku Islands issue. “We sifted through administrative files, but could not find any relevant document” was the reason the ministry gave for its non-disclosure. In 1997, however, former Japanese Ambassador to China Shoji Sato went on record that the document in question does exist.
In 2006, Nobuyuki Sugimoto, former Japanese Consul-General in Shanghai, said it was Sonoda that first referred to the issue in his meeting with Deng. However, the point was disputed by China. Zhang Hongshan, who was once vice president of the China-Japan Friendship Association, was quoted as saying in the 2003 book co-authored by Ishii, “After Deng Xiaoping touched on the Diaoyu Islands issue, Foreign Minister Sonoda stated as follows: ‘I have something to say on the issue as foreign minister of Japan. I think you are aware of Japan’s position on the Senkaku Islands. I do hope that such a fortuitous accident (referring to the one in which a Chinese fishing boat once entered the waters off the Diaoyu Islands) will not occur again in the future.’ To this remark by Sonoda, Deng Xiaoping said, ’Let me say one thing, too. While our generation has put aside the issue unable to find a solution, our next generation and its next generation will never fail to find a way to resolve it’.”
In concluding his lecture, Ishii said diplomacy is not necessarily aimed to determine a winner or a loser. When studying the Senkaku Islands issue, he said, it will be crucially important to make an accurate comparison of the records made available by both sides, know exactly what was actually discussed including which side was the first to mention the issue and clarify how they arrived at their common understanding.
Written by: Kento Isogai