China, Japan scholars seek way out in islands row

As fears grow over a simmering island dispute between China and Japan, scholars from both nations are hoping to lower the temperature with expansive talks in Washington in search of common ground.

The academics acknowledged that Tokyo and Beijing have major differences over the territories in the East China Sea but they saw one fundamental point in common -- neither side wanted the conflict to escalate into war.

A pair of US-based scholars from the two countries brought together experts -- four from China, three from Japan -- all day Sunday to hear out views on the islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The Chinese co-convener, Zheng Wang, found a "huge perception gap" between the two sides and said that rising nationalism in Asia's two largest economies made it difficult for leaders to take any action that could be seen as weak.

"Each side sees themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor -- 'they take aggressive behavior to change the status quo, and we are peace-loving countries,'" said Wang, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

China and Japan both claim the potentially energy-rich islands in the East China Sea with each side offering historical arguments. The United States says it takes no ultimate position but considers Tokyo to hold effective control.

Incidents in 2010 and 2012 sent tensions soaring between US-allied Japan and a rising China, with anti-Japanese protesters holding rare street demonstrations in China last year.

The Washington talks did not involve government representatives but several participants made suggestions in a personal capacity.

Tatsushi Arai, a visiting scholar of conflict resolution at George Mason University who convened the session with Wang, said his proposal amounted to "agree to disagree, through peaceful means."

Arai laid out three options, including Japan affirming its sovereignty but acknowledging China's position. Japan insists that the islands are not disputed territory.

Conversely, China could stand by its claims but acknowledge Japan's position, or the two sides could both acknowledge differences. The two countries could afterward work on a code of conduct for the waters.

With any of the options, "the Japanese side doesn't have to compromise on the territorial claim and the Chinese side does not have to; however, they agree to disagree," Arai said.

Nabuo Fukuda, a journalist at Japan's Asahi Shimbun who is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, said that the two nations could come together to begin new test-drilling for oil in the area of the islands.

If the two sides discover oil, they can discuss joint exploitation, he said.

"If oil is not found, maybe this issue won't disappear, but the experience working together and routinely will be helpful for future situations," he said.

Japan and China reached an agreement in 2008 billed by Tokyo as a joint development plan, but there has been no progress amid dispute over what was decided.

Robert Hathaway, the director of the Wilson Center's Asia program who helped organize the session, said the territorial row remained complex but that all scholars agreed it would be "heightened folly" to let the situation spin out of control.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year gave her blessing for an unrelated trip by former senior US officials to China and Japan to seek to calm tensions.

But US officials increasingly suspect that China is trying to challenge Japan's control in the area, leading Clinton on January 18 to issue a veiled warning to Beijing over its actions.

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