China claims Japan agreed to 'shelving' disputed islands issue

This is the forth installment of a series.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is known as being well-informed about Japan, as he is fluent in Japanese and has served as Chinese ambassador to Japan. Such a person is now sending a message to the international community that Japan and China agreed in the past to "shelve" the territorial issue over the Senkaku Islands.

On Sept. 20, Wang told the audience during a lecture at a think tank in Washington: "Forty-one years ago, when China and Japan achieved the normalization of diplomatic relations, leaders of the two nations reached a very important agreement...that is...we can set aside our difference [on the Senkaku issue] and take care of it or resolve it at some later date."

What does China's "shelving" agreement claim mean?

To understand what Wang intended to say, one must look back at how the issue unfolded.

The Senkaku Islands were included in Japan's territories in January 1895, after the nation confirmed the islands were not under the control of China, or Qing, at that time. The confirmation came after Japan conducted research over a decade or so.

Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the nation lost its overseas territories in line with the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, 48 nations, including the United States-which signed the treaty-considered the Senkaku Islands as part of Okinawa and put them under US administrative control.

Under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement signed on June 17, 1971, the islands were returned to Japan.

However, after a UN research team brought up the possibility of oil reserves being located near the Senkaku Islands in 1969, China and Taiwan began to assert territorial rights over the islands in 1971 for the first time.

Under such a delicate situation, Japan and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1972.

Wang argues that the two nations agreed to "shelve" the settlement of the dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands during the normalization talks. Following this logic, it becomes Japan that broke the agreement through nationalizing the islands in 2012.

Such a stance was also taken by former Chinese "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping. In October 1978, when Deng came to Japan to exchange the instruments of ratification of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty, he said at a press conference at the Japan National Press Club: "We call the Senkaku Islands the Diaoyu Islands. [Japan and China] have different names for them and call them differently. At the time of normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, the two sides pledged not to touch on the issue. Also this time, during the negotiations of the peace and friendship treaty, [the two nations] agreed not to touch on the issue.

"I think it doesn't matter if this kind of problem is shelved for some time. It will be fine if it is shelved for a decade. People in our generation lack wisdom. Those in the next generation will be wiser than us. Then, they will be able to find a good solution that is acceptable for everyone."

Deng's remarks can be interpreted as saying the confrontation should be shelved for the sake of friendly relations of the two nations, but it should be noted that China claims the issue has been set aside on the premise that sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands has yet to be determined.

Prof. Akira Kotera from the University of Tokyo, an expert on international law, compared China's claims to a situation where one person passes in front of another person's house and suddenly declares it to be "my house." This is because China did not make any objection to Japan's sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands for nearly two decades after the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. If Japan accepts China's "shelving" agreement claim, "Japan will have to negotiate with China over the territorial rights, and that will eventually lead to a situation where the islands would be put under joint control," Kotera said.

For Japan, there is a grudging acknowledgement that the "shelving" agreement claim had never been clearly dismissed.

Takakazu Kuriyama, former Japanese ambassador to the United States who was involved in the diplomatic normalization talks with China as the director of the Treaties Division of the Foreign Ministry, expressed the view in an article of the December 2012 issue of Ajia Jiho (Asia times) that there was tacit approval because the Japanese government did not directly reject China's claim that the issue had been "shelved." However, Kuriyama also wrote, "It's too one-sided for China to claim there existed a clear agreement between Japan and China to shelve the issue."

Currently, the Japanese government maintains that there is a pledge neither to touch on the Senkaku issue, nor shelve the issue, as stated by Deng, either during the negotiations to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations or during the negotiations for the bilateral peace and friendship treaty. This stance was clearly shown in a government statement, approved by the Cabinet on Oct. 26, 2010, in the form of a reply to a lawmaker's question.

However, a former Japanese government official admitted to the existence of the "shelving" agreement, compli-cating arguments on the issue. The next installment of this series will explore this further.

Law enacted in '92 contrary to claims to shelve territorial issue

The Yomiuri Shimbun

In February 1992, China enacted the Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zones, placing the Senkaku Islands within its territories and claiming the surrounding waters as its territorial waters. It stipulated that China take every necessary step against intrusion into its territorial waters.

Based on the law, China has sent government ships to waters around the Senkaku Islands in the name of "patrolling," repeatedly intruding into Japanese territorial waters.

China claims there was an agreement between Tokyo and Beijing to shelve the territorial issue over the islands during the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations in 1972, and upon the signing of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1978. But China enacted the law in 1992, which would run counter to China's own claims of shelving the issue.

Although the Japanese government lodged a protest against the move, it did not elevate it to a major diplomatic issue after China explained that it did not intend to take any new steps and that its stance on the issue was unchanged. The Emperor and the Empress visited China in October 1992 as scheduled.