Amako Satoshi, professor of modern China studies, Waseda University
Japan and China are once again locked in a dispute over sovereignty following Japan's seizure of a Chinese trawler near the disputed Senkaku Islands and the arrest of its captain. There has been no letup in protests voiced by Chinese authorities. As the captain's detention continues, anti-Japan sentiment among the Chinese public is escalating.
The immediate release of the skipper, however, would strike the Japanese public as a cave-in by Tokyo to Beijing's demands. It would inevitably trigger a backlash, both at home and in China. That would wipe out the "mutually beneficial strategic ties" the two nations have strived to build, deepening the sense of mutual distrust and possibly leading to confrontation. Blaming China for this, by pointing to its expansionism and hegemonism, would be easy, but it would only make matters worse. China, and Taiwan, too, have their own say on this particular territorial issue. That is why there have been repeated outbursts over many years. It is time for political and opinion leaders of both Japan and China to work together and put their ingenuity to good use.
The heart of the matter must be in how they regard state sovereignty. I think of it not as an "invariable, inviolable, inherent notion" but a variable "historical notion."
The notion of sovereignty that has survived the longest is one in the Westphalian system. It was established in Europe under the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War. It is a nation-state system in which a state is regarded as the supreme or sovereign power within its boundaries. That allows international order to be maintained based on agreements among them. But given the current form of the European Union, it is clear this notion is not absolutely invariable. China today vehemently stresses inviolable state sovereignty, but its history in this regard does not span such a long time. Until the final years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), China's view of the world was based on Sinocentrism, not on a nation-state system.
Today, huge waves of globalization have generally deepened cross-border, mutual dependence in numerous fields, weakened awareness of state and its sovereignty, diversified views of national interests and strengthened ideas and moves beyond nation-states. There have been persistent arguments, too, espousing national sovereignty. In the global community of the 21st century, values, roles and functions of nation-states will live side by side with their trans-national counterparts while they complement and affect each other.
If the row over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyutai in Chinese) is fought in terms of a state versus state, the dispute can only be resolved through power, which would leave major scars on both sides. But if we view the controversy in the framework of a nation-state/trans-national system, then its solution will require completely fresh ideas. I have long thought of "joint sovereignty" as an idea for limited application to disputed land and sea areas. The relationship of cooperation and interdependence, in fields other than the political question of sovereignty, must not be made light of. The logic and practices of trans-national ideas should not be one-sidedly subordinated to the logic and practices of state.
What action should we take now? A cooling-off period may be necessary, but leaving the problem unsolved will make the situation worse. I suggest a Japan-China summit be held swiftly, where the leaders of the two countries should declare that the Senkaku Islands issue as a territorial question will now be frozen. The two nations must strive to calm down, with Japan releasing the trawler captain. If possible, the area in question should be designated as a "special political zone," restricting access at the private level. The two nations should also set up a panel of experts to discuss and settle the many problems concerning this area in the East China Sea. If Japan sticks to its position that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory, so discussing the issue is in itself meaningless and wrong, then nothing will be resolved.
At the same time, I hope the Chinese side will take a calm approach on this issue from a broad point of view.
(Original Japanese text appeared in The Asahi Shimbun on September 22, 2010. English translation appeared in the International Herald Tribune/The Asahi Shimbun on September 23, 2010.)