China’s Preparation for Senkakus Incursions in 1992 Prompted Japan’s Diplomatically-Minded Response

In 1992, Japan decided to exercise caution when China enacted a law that claimed the Senkaku Islands as its territory. According to Japanese diplomatic documents released this week, the government chose to remain restrained in order to avoid a diplomatic confrontation prior to Emperor Akihito’s scheduled visit to China later that year. The newly revealed records shed light on Japan’s response to the situation at the time.

This is the first time detailed accounts of Japan’s reaction to China’s claim on the Senkaku Islands have been made public. China has escalated its presence in the waters around the Senkaku Islands in recent years, making Japan’s handling of the situation in 1992 particularly noteworthy.

The Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, enacted by China’s National People’s Congress on February 25, 1992, explicitly stated that the Senkaku Islands were part of China’s territory. It also threatened to take measures against any violations of its territorial waters.

Japan and China were planning for Emperor Akihito’s visit to China in October of that year as an attempt to mend diplomatic relations on the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Hisashi Owada, then-administrative vice foreign minister, filed a protest with the Chinese government in response to the law’s enactment. Despite the protest, Japan decided to not let the issue become a focal point in their diplomatic ties with China.

The enactment of the Chinese law led to strong opposition within Japan, which raised concerns about its potential impact on the negotiations for the Emperor’s visit to China. The Japanese Ambassador to China at the time proposed suggesting to Beijing that the issue be left untouched for six months before and after the upcoming visit.

Despite serious concerns, Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe held a confidential meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, to address the matter. Watanabe informed Qian that the new law had an adverse effect on the negotiations for the Emperor’s visit. He also sought Qian’s approval for a “cooling-off period” before and after the Imperial visit, leading to the successful conclusion of the Emperor’s visit.

The adoption of the territorial waters law contradicted China’s claim of shelving the Senkaku and other territorial issues. China’s use of the law as a basis for its repeated intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters since 2008 shows a different approach than its previous stance.

Chinese government vessels have intruded into Japan’s territorial waters repeatedly under the pretext of carrying out patrols, as part of their efforts to change the status quo unilaterally. That approach has led to concerns about China’s intentions, as it represents a deviation from the country’s previous diplomatic position.

Experts believe that Japan may have underestimated China’s authoritarian nature and the possibilities of using force to change the status quo, when it opted for restraint in 1992. They also stressed the significance of the Emperor’s visit to China as a symbolic event that played a crucial role in Japan-China relations.


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