China and Japan Move to Cool Down Diaoyu Dispute

China Daily reports on CCP general secretary Xi Jinping’s recent meeting with a Japanese envoy in Beijing, in which standing tensions over the Diaoyu Islands were indirectly addressed:

Xi Jinping on Friday said China and Japan should address “sensitive” issues between the two countries effectively and in a timely manner.

Xi, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, made the remarks as he met with Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the New Komeito party, on Friday morning. The New Komeito party is the smaller of Japan’s two ruling parties.

Yamaguchi, who arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, is the first senior member of Japan’s ruling bloc to travel to China since the Japanese government announced it would “purchase” part of the Diaoyu Islands in September, a move that soured bilateral relations.

“China’s stance on the Diaoyu Islands is consistent and clear,” Xi said, urging the Japanese side to respect history as well as reality and make joint efforts with China to seek effective methods for appropriately controlling and resolving problems through dialogue and consultation.

While the China Daily report chose to quote Xi emphasizing consistency in China’s stance on the islands, New York Times coverage notes that the leader’s comments were soft when compared to previous official statements:

China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, offered Japan a conciliatory tone during a meeting with a senior Japanese politician on Friday in an apparent effort to reduce the escalating tensions between the two countries over islands in the East China Sea.

In some of his first remarks on China’s foreign policy since becoming secretary general of the Communist Party, Mr. Xi told the Japanese lawmaker, Natsuo Yamaguchi, “The Chinese government remains committed to China-Japan relations,” according to an account provided by China’s Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Xi urged both sides to “look at the larger picture” and “push relations forward,” the Foreign Ministry said, language markedly more restrained than the combative exhortations from military officials and state-run media since the dispute over the islands erupted four months ago.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, the envoy who met with Xi, represented Japan’s new coalition government led by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, a man whose “hawkish” campaign statements concerning the Diaoyu Islands were a cause for concern in China. Japanese coverage of the meeting notes that Yamaguchi delivered a letter on Abe’s behalf requesting a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, and that Xi responded agreeably. From The Asahi Shimbun:

During their hour-long discussion, Yamaguchi handed Xi a letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requesting a summit meeting between the two new heads of government.

“I will seriously consider a high-level dialogue,” Xi responded. “To do so, arranging the proper environment is of vital importance.”

Upon returning to Tokyo, Yamaguchi expressed optimism about an eventual resolution to the territorial dispute. Reuters reports:

Japan takes a broad view of the issue and believes tensions can be resolved between the two countries, he told reporters before returning to Tokyo after a four-day visit.

“Japan wishes to pursue ties with China while looking at the big picture,” Yamaguchi said he told Xi, who is set to take over as China’s president in March.

“I firmly believe our differences with China can be resolved,” Yamaguchi said, adding that he did not directly discuss the islands issue with Xi.

“We agreed that it is important to continue dialogue with the aim of holding a Japan-China summit between the two leaders,” he added, though no specific details were given. “Secretary Xi said he will seriously consider a high-level dialogue with Japan.”

Another report from Reuters tells of an imminent U.N. investigation into the validity of China’s claims on the group of islands:

The United Nations is planning to consider later this year the scientific validity of a claim by China that a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea are part of its territory, although Japan says the world body should not be involved.

It was not immediately clear if the U.N. involvement would increase the likelihood the China-Japan dispute would be resolved peacefully. But launching an international legal process that should yield a neutral scientific opinion could reduce the temperature for now in Beijing’s spat with Tokyo.

In a submission to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, China says the continental shelf in the East China Sea is a natural prolongation of China’s land territory and that it includes the disputed islands.

As China and Japan appear to be softening their rhetoric, Taiwan – another claimant to sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands – is reasserting its claims. The Asahi Shimbun reports on confrontation between the Japanese Coast Guard and a fishing boat full of Taiwanese activists on January 24:

The fishing boat, accompanied by four Taiwanese cutters, entered the contiguous zone off Japan’s territorial waters around the islands, but was chased off by the Japan Coast Guard using a water cannon. The uninhabited islands, called Diaoyutai in Taiwan, are effectively administered by Japan but are claimed by both Taiwan and China.

[…]The “Chinese Association for Protecting the Diaoyutais,” which sent the fishing boat, is a group of political activists, four of whom hold fishery certificates. Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration said there was no reason to block the boat from leaving port, because the action was lawful.

[…]A Taiwanese Foreign Ministry source indicated the authorities approved the latest departure because the Ma administration was eager to assert Taiwan’s role and presence at a time when the United States, Japan’s ally, and China have come to loggerheads over the Senkakus issue.

“We have to assert ourselves whenever China takes a strong stand,” the ministry source said.

But Taipei has also been careful not to give the impression, either at home or abroad, that China and Taiwan are joining hands over the Senkakus dispute.