Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.11.12

Japan-China Thaw: Another Strategic Ambiguity

JBpress on November 11, 2014

After a few years of mini cold war between them, Japan and China seem to have finally reached a thaw--at least temporarily. The four points of "shared views" or "agreements" are a product of professional diplomatic art. However, there is no authentic interpretation of them. This is just another document of strategic ambiguity in the history of Japan-China relations.

An article in the New York Times dated November 7, for example, erroneously tried to define the meaning of the four points by interpreting them as follows: "The agreement was announced in similarly worded statements by both sides acknowledging that 'different positions exist' over the islands known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku."

The article misses the forest for the trees, as it quotes a Chinese scholar saying that, "That the statement doesn't say Japan has sovereignty is a diplomatic victory for China and allows the Xi-Abe meeting to happen in the next few days." Such a misleading interpretation of the four points overlooks the fact that there are in fact four different versions of the "text."

The silent majority of Japanese only know that quiet discussions have been held between the governments of Japan and China and that both sides have come to share views on the four points, as written in the Japanese Foreign Ministry's version of the text, which is by no means a "similarly worded statement" to the Chinese version as the New York Times described.

The four versions of the text are, two in Japanese and in English prepared by the Japanese side and another two in Chinese and in English by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. To make matters worse, those four versions are, of course, not fully identical to one another. For example, the Chinese versions are much longer than the ones released by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What Japan calls "shared views" China calls "agreements." Beijing stated that both sides, "acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years ... in the East China Sea," while Tokyo just, "recognized that there are different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea."

One of the most striking contrasts between the two sides is the following: While Japan insists that, "Both sides shared some recognition that ... they would overcome political difficulties that affect their bilateral relations," China asserts that, "The two sides have reached some agreement on overcoming political obstacles in the bilateral relations."

This is not to imply that there are no agreements between Japan and China. We should not only see the leaves by over-interpreting the details of the four-point "agreements" or "shared views" or by saying that one side gains or loses in the negotiations on the text, simply because such arguments, as witnessed in the New York Times article, are not only irrelevant but counterproductive.

The essence of the four points is strategic ambiguity. In foreign policy, sometimes ambiguity plays an effective role--especially in such important relations as those between Japan and China, where it is strategic ambiguity that gives life to agreements and understandings and guarantees the longevity thereof.

Thus, the latest "shared views" between the two nations could be, and should be, a significant milestone that leads the two countries to a new equilibrium after overcoming their differences in views and frictions over the past several years. Not only the two governments but also the two peoples must understand that we sometimes must agree to disagree, especially in difficult times.

One thing the two sides clearly agree is that they will only gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogues. Japan-China relations will only be stabilized through the use of a variety of communication channels and only a realistic and pragmatic approach will rebuild a healthy bilateral political relationship of mutual trust.