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September 22, 2017

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Tiaoyutai row has a way to go yet

While the immediate crisis over Japan's seizure of the Chinese fishing vessel that rammed two Japanese coast guard patrol boats in September has ended with the release of the captain, the repercussions will long be felt.

For one thing, distrust of each other on the part of both governments and peoples, which had begun to fade after Beijing and Tokyo agreed not to rake up old coals concerning history, is again on the rise and is unlikely to subside in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the history issue, which both Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao tried to set to rest during their Japan visits in 2007 and 2008, respectively, is just beneath the surface and could re-emerge, given the slightest provocation.

During the Hu visit to Tokyo, Japan and China issued a joint statement in which they "recognized that the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for each of the two countries."

That continues to be the case. Japan and China need each other and, in a broader sense, Asia needs the two most important countries in the region to get along with each other, to trade, to cooperate and to trust each other.

But the ruckus over the Chinese fishing vessel, which was operating in waters surrounding disputed islands called the Senkakus by Japan, the Diaoyu islands by China, and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, now threatens the future of the region.

More than three decades ago, when China and Japan signed a friendship treaty, the territorial dispute was not allowed to stand in the way. China's leader at that time, Deng Xiaoping, suggested shelving the sovereignty dispute in favor of joint development of economic resources, primarily natural gas.

That should still be the position of both China and Japan. Shelving the dispute should mean maintaining the status quo. These islands are under Japanese administration and if China allows its fishing vessels to operate in those waters, that would represent an attempt to change the status quo and has to be resisted.

Similarly, if Japan tries to prosecute a Chinese national operating within these disputed waters, rather than simply drive away the fishing vessel concerned, that, too, would be an attempt to change the status quo.

In this recent episode, it appears that both governments allowed their nationals to take actions that threatened to change the status quo.

In this connection, it may be helpful if the two countries can create some mechanism to prevent such incidents from occurring again in the future. While it will be difficult to do so in view of rising nationalism in both countries, not to do so is to invite future disaster.

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