By Nicholas Clement
May 17 – On Wednesday, China held negotiations with Japan regarding maritime issues in the East China Sea, with their territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands on the top of the agenda. Currently involved in a naval standoff with the Philippines in the South China Sea and ongoing border disputes with India, it is increasingly clear that China’s relations with its neighbors are exemplified by geopolitical processes.
The territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (which is currently controlled by Japan, yet also claimed by China and Taiwan) intensified last month when the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced plans to buy the islands from a private owner, claiming that they were extremely important to Japan as a source of natural resources. The reaction from China was negative; with Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin stating that “any unilateral action taken by Japan on the Diaoyu and nearby islands is illegal and invalid and cannot change the reality of China’s ownership.”
The issue, however, was largely defused with the Japanese government denouncing the plan as an independent action of Ishihara.
This week’s bilateral maritime talks were held for one day in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, and were attended by the foreign and defense ministries from both countries, as well as their maritime departments and other related bodies. There were no restrictions on the issues that could be discussed. The two sides exchanged views on their various concerns about Sino-Japanese bilateral relations, including establishing mechanisms which allow for effective management of conflicts, increased communication, and mutual understanding and trust in the East China Sea. The press release from the maritime talks stated that a second round of high-level negotiations will be held in Japan later this year.
The importance of these talks, however, could be overshadowed by Japan’s decision to allow the World Uighur Congress (WUC) to be held in Tokyo. The Uighurs are a minority Turkish ethnic group in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. In recent years, this region has become increasingly unstable due to a series of fatal riots, whom China blames on the WUC. The impact of this issue on Sino-Japanese relations is yet to be seen, but Japanese Prime Minister Noda has promised not to interfere with Chinese internal affairs, instead focusing on the development of their bilateral relations.
Maritime negotiations between China and Japan represent a chance for them to strengthen regional security, but territorial disputes are infamously difficult to resolve – China’s current standoff with the Philippines is a prime example of this. However, with the successful conclusion of these talks, and a promise to convene again later this year, China and Japan have taken the first step to increasing mutual trust and understanding in the East China Sea.