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Grave risks of fighting over those islands

Publication Date : 27-09-2012

 

Fallout from the China-Japan legacy eruption last week is already evident. Cancellation of observances to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries will be assessed by most people as a symbolic act, but matters can get worse if the two nations do not tamp down provocations in language and deed.

The ties have acted as a stabiliser for the neighbours to move on from a troubled past to gainful cooperation. It does not serve their shared interests to tolerate even a temporary setback to the relationship.

On the economic front, it is possible more Japanese manufacturers would follow Nissan and Toyota in scaling down their China operations, or even exit the country. Rising labour costs had been a concern; a far larger issue now dominates thinking. A Reuters poll showing that four in 10 Japanese investors feel anti-Japanese sentiment would affect their business plans is chastening. China cannot be blase about the resulting job losses at a time of slowing industrial expansion and social discontent.

As protests over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islets can occur at any time, leaders on both sides would be wise to ponder two points which most observers would see as unambiguous.

One, there is no foreseeable solution to the disputes as national pride and identity matter nearly as much as historical antecedents backing the claims. This is true also of the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between South Korea and Japan. Two, the longer Japan avoids a full accounting of its wartime record, the harder it will be to erase residual Chinese animosity. The past need not be an eternal burden to future generations.

China and Japan should reflect on a third point: North Asia will be pacing the arrival of the Asian Century, with supporting roles played by India and South East Asia. After the economic prosperity should follow a Pax Asiana - the peace of the triumphant. A fight over islets would ruin the scenario.

A distracted North Asia with resources diverted from peaceful development will delay, if not impede, the fulfilment of Asia's advance towards economic pre-eminence.

A temporary agreement to hold the disputes in abeyance ought to be possible, until a time when the disputants are confident that they can discuss the claims calmly or are willing to choose adjudication. Talks aimed at easing tension should continue.

It may be possible to invoke the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Agreement - an omnibus pact - to put a freeze on claims as all three signatories are involved. China's approach on the Taiwan issue is a model, but only if the other party concurs. The future of Asia could be shaped by what will happen in the North, already complicated by the North Korea stalemate and Russia's Asiatic ambitions.

 

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