The festering dispute between China and Japan over five uninhabited islands could spin out of control unless the countries improve their communication with each other, according to a confidential report submitted to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week by a delegation of former U.S. officials.
The bipartisan four-person delegation met last week with Japan’s prime minister and China’s vice premier, who is expected to take over as prime minister, and both countries’ foreign ministers. The U.S. group warns Clinton in its written report that, while neither side wants a confrontation, a mistake or miscalculation could escalate into a military face-off.
Members of the delegation described their findings on the condition of anonymity because their meetings and report are confidential.
Clinton dispatched the mission in an effort to assess ways to reduce mounting tensions in light of Japan’s nationwide elections next year, an imminent leadership change in China and rising nationalist rhetoric in both Asian countries over the islands in the East China Sea. The five islands are called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Taiwan, which calls them Diaoyutai, also claims the chain, which is surrounded by undersea oil and natural gas fields.
The members of the delegation, all former national security officials, were Democrats Joseph Nye and James Steinberg and Republicans Richard Armitage and Stephen Hadley. Clinton sent a bipartisan delegation to signal to China and Japan that both political parties support the U.S. position on the islands so its report would carry weight with whomever wins the U.S. presidential and congressional elections, according to members of the group.
“While the State Department supported and facilitated their travel, they acted in a consultative role for the United States government,” said John Echard, a State Department spokesman. “The individuals were not traveling to mediate regional security issues, but rather listened to perspectives of each side.”
The former U.S. officials met last week with Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and other officials, and are scheduled to meet with Clinton on Nov. 8.
They plan to report to Clinton that surprisingly poor communications and serious misunderstandings between China and Japan increase the risk that the territorial dispute could escalate if their ships collide or there’s some other mishap, delegation members said. Their report says China and Japan need to improve communication at a variety of levels, from heads of state down to the local coast guard commanders whose vessels are patrolling in the vicinity of the islands.
Japan issued a protest this week when four Chinese patrol boats entered the waters near the disputed islands after officials of the two countries met last week in Shanghai in an attempt to improve relations.
In their meetings in both nations, the U.S. delegation members said, they encountered differing reactions from officials and from analysts affiliated with the government toward the American effort to help defuse the dispute.
There also were differing reactions, the members said, to the delegation’s message that the U.S. recognizes Japan’s administrative control of the islands, so it’s bound by Article V of the Japan-U.S. security treaty to consult with Japan “whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened.” Both Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also have made that point.
While some Chinese officials grumbled, Chinese analysts had harsher reactions, with some accusing Japan and the U.S. of trying to overturn the outcome of World War II, according to two of the U.S. members. That, said one delegate, was echoed by what he called rude remarks by Chinese Lieutenant General Ren Hiaquan in Australia this week.
Addressing a high-level military conference in Melbourne, Ren, vice president of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, called Japan a former fascist nation that had bombed the northern Australian city of Darwin and said territorial disputes could trigger open war, according to The Australian newspaper and two attendees at the meeting. Further, the Chinese delegation went sightseeing the next day instead of returning to the conference, said one of the attendees.
Two delegation members said the Chinese seemed to be responding in part to a rightward turn in Japanese politics. That includes the failed attempt to buy three of the disputed islands this spring by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a Japanese nationalist who has started a new political party and once denied that invading Japanese troops had slaughtered Chinese civilians in Nanjing in 1937. He also wanted to locate Japanese on the island or stage protests there, which would’ve been a provocation to China.
Noda’s national government attempted to defuse Ishihara’s provocation by buying the islands in September so that it could prevent nationalist settlers or protesters from going there. China didn’t accept the Japanese government’s explanation and responded by sending two surveillance ships into Japanese territorial waters to underscore its claim to the islands.
Geng Yansheng, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman, explained the move in a September 11 statement, saying: “The determination and the will of the Chinese government and military to safeguard their territorial integrity are firm. We are closely monitoring the situation and reserve the right to take necessary measures.”
Noda is expected to discuss the issue again during a two-day meeting of Asian and European leaders next week in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The Chinese Foreign Ministry on October 29 said there are no plans for officials of the two nations to meet during the summit. A Japan expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Science told the China Daily that “most of Japan’s proposals that have been made public so far are not constructive, and it has just glossed over things without due sincerity.”
In the short run, one member of the U.S. delegation said, there’s little the U.S. can do to resolve the dispute. The best the U.S. can hope for is to ease tensions, and that’s not guaranteed to avert any skirmish, he said.
Still, another member said that strong diplomacy in person by U.S. officials based in the region, as well as high-level statements made by Clinton and Panetta, does make a difference and reduces the risks of military conflict.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top East Asia official, discussed the islands on Oct. 23 with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai at a conference in San Francisco. Two days later, he discussed it with Japanese officials in Tokyo.
Of the four delegation members, Steinberg served as Clinton’s deputy secretary of state and is now dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. Nye was an assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Clinton administration and is former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Hadley was national security adviser in President George W. Bush’s second term and is now a principal at RiceHadleyGates LLC, an international business consultancy based in Washington and San Francisco. Armitage served as deputy secretary of state during Bush’s first term and now heads Armitage International L.C., an international consultancy based in Arlington, Virginia.