Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Northeast Asia is stumbling dangerously close to a confrontation over a chain of uninhabited islands known as the Senkakus by Japan, which administers them, and Diaoyu by China and Taiwan, which separately claim them. Although the probability of a conflict remains low, the consequences would be incalculable: With the U.S. committed to defend its ally Japan, any flare-up would quickly involve the world’s three largest economies.
Japanese and Chinese ships and fighter jets have been playing a cat-and-mouse game in the area for the past year. But tensions rose drastically last week when China declared the imposition of a vast “air defense identification zone” off its shores, encompassing the disputed isles. Beijing has demanded that any planes flying through this zone alert and obey Chinese air traffic authorities; any violators are liable to be intercepted. (The zone also covers areas claimed by South Korea, which has been growing closer to China in recent months as its own relations with Japan have frayed.)
The U.S. has condemned China’s move as “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” and has already defied the edict by flying a pair of B-52s across the zone without informing Beijing. That was a useful message to send quickly, before the chances of a miscalculation increase any more. But at this fraught moment the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea need more than anything else to be talking to one another. When he visits Asia next week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden should concentrate on making this happen.
The leaders have been purposely avoiding one another. South Korean President Park Geun Hye won’t meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe because of his government’s alleged soft-pedaling of Japan’s brutal wartime record. Chinese President Xi Jinping has rejected offers of a summit with Abe, saying that Tokyo must first admit that sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyu is in dispute. Abe refuses to concede even that semantic point.
One might well ask what use talks would be. To outsiders, the tensions that have plagued the region since Japan’s colonization of its two neighbors can seem arcane: arguments over history books, shrine visits and official apologies. Mistrust of Abe’s nationalist government runs so deep in Seoul and Beijing that any new statement of regret for Japan’s wartime brutality -- even if forthcoming -- would probably not be reckoned sincere. The territorial disputes are even more intractable.
Abe, Park and Xi should have much else they can agreeably discuss, however. All face the twin challenges of economic restructuring at home and a still-sluggish global economy. Much more can be done to enhance trade and investment among them. This week, in fact, negotiators from all three countries are meeting in Tokyo to discuss a trilateral free-trade agreement that would cover a market of more than 1.5 billion people and an estimated $690 billion in trade. Last week a delegation of almost 170 Japanese businessmen traveled to China, where sales of Japanese goods have started to bounce back after tensions exploded over the Senkakus/Diaoyu last year.
China seems to believe that the U.S. should rein in its Japanese ally, rather than support its defiant stand. Biden would be well-advised to dispel this notion next week: If Chinese officials truly want to improve communication and avoid accidents in the disputed area, they can take up Japan’s longstanding offer to negotiate shared rules of conduct and establish a hot line between the Japanese and Chinese militaries.
Park, who is playing to domestic sentiment with her hardline stance, should in theory be an easier sell. Korea’s refusal to engage with Japan clearly damages U.S. interests -- a point that Biden can make more strongly than less senior U.S. officials have recently.
Even some Korean commentators have acknowledged that Abe deserves more credit than he’s received for behaving responsibly, especially after his thumping victory in Upper House elections over the summer. He’s tabled the most controversial proposals for altering Japan’s peacetime constitution, and declined to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 Class A war criminals. Abe also reached an agreement in April allowing fishing in the disputed waters by Taiwan. Still, the U.S. can expect him to do more. If the Chinese will engage on talks about a code of conduct near the Senkakus/Diaoyu, Abe should be able to find a way to satisfy China’s conditions for a summit.
There is far too much at stake in the region, and far too much in dispute. The leaders of China, Japan and South Korea need to start talking as much about what brings them together as what’s driving them apart.
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