How to make sense of the dispute between Japan and China over some half a dozen uninhabited islets in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese?
With a combined area of just a couple of square kilometers, and no permanent human use of any of the islands in recent decades, it is hard to see how the islands could nearly bring the two Asian nations to blows. But from a broad perspective, these rocks are laden with tremendous symbolic and historical significance.
For China, the status of the Diaoyu islands today constitutes a legacy of a period of Japanese aggression beginning in the late 19th century and continuing until 1945 for which Japan sometimes still fails to show proper repentance. In Beijing’s eyes, standing up for what it views as its proper rights upholds the post-World War II international order, which dictates that Japan give up the territories that it took from China in the war of 1894-95.
For Japan, China’s new interest in what had appeared to be a settled matter over the islands suggests a newly assertive China is bent on using its increased power for nationalistic purposes — not only over these particular islands, but also in other maritime domains of the western Pacific region. As such, beyond the immediate importance of these islands, the dispute could be a harbinger of unpleasant things to come.
Nationalistic politics in both countries further compound the difficulty of finding a solution to the quarrel over islands that both sides claim in their entirety.
We are independent scholars from each of the key countries involved in this dispute. This includes the U.S., which professes no opinion on who owns the islands, but made many of the territorial decisions after World War II that produced the current situation, and which continues to support Japanese claims to be the rightful administrator of the islands today. The following is offered as a framework to spur our governments to try new approaches.
Two main ideas are at the heart of our proposal, which is designed to respect the core interests and nonnegotiable demands of both claimants to the islands. One pillar is the notion of shared sovereignty, with both Japan and China retaining their claims to all the islands. The second calls for ownership of the islands to be decoupled from ongoing disputes over who has access to parts of the surrounding seas and seabeds. This logic leads to two options that policymakers in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington should consider:
An interim freeze: The simplest approach would be for each side to not object to the other’s claim of sovereignty, and for both sides to forgo any active use, administration or oversight of the islands. In effect, the dispute would be frozen. This would allow time for the Japan-China relationship to return to a calmer state, or perhaps for new ideas to emerge on how sovereignty can be shared more permanently. By decoupling the ownership issue from economic rights around the islands, the situation could be further eased.
A more binding solution: This approach would employ similar logic but seek a more lasting resolution. It would include six points:
— Each side agrees to not challenge the right of the other to maintain its respective claims to full sovereignty over all the islands.
— China agrees to accept that Japan will continue legally to have administrative rights over the islands. This would be a concession by Beijing.
— Japan accepts that use of the islands would be delegated to an oversight board, with equal numbers of Japanese and Chinese members and a rotating chairman, making any decisions on use of the islands (such as visits by scientists or tourists) by consensus. Thus, in practical terms, it would share all administrative duties and rights with China. This would be a concession by Tokyo.
— Unilateral patrols around the islands by any ships or planes from either side would end. All patrolling within the 12-mile zone bordering the islands would be done jointly. The islands would be used solely for nonmilitary purposes such as ecological tourism, with all such activities fully regulated by the oversight board.
— The two sides agree that their ongoing disagreements over their respective rights to sea and seabed resources in the broader western Pacific region will not be influenced or decided by any claims to the islands. In other words, the islands would be decoupled from other matters of territory and sovereignty, and the Law of the Sea will in effect not apply.
— Both sides agree that they will not open up any new territorial disputes with the other over any land formations anywhere in the western Pacific (right now, the Diaoyu/Senkaku are the only disputed territories involving China and Japan, and it is important that no new disputes surface down the road).
Only a package deal such as the above can work, because it asks for flexibility from each key party simultaneously, yet it also clearly upholds what have been the fundamental demands of both. With the governments of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping now fully established in Japan and China, respectively, the moment for diplomacy may be upon us.
At a minimum, the two sides should seek a freeze, as in our first option. Alternatively, or subsequently, they could find a permanent resolution. If nothing else, we need to begin an academic debate about how to solve this dispute rather than simply hoping that it does not turn into a serious crisis again.
This opinion originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times.