Japan Ponders Sending Its Island Disputes to the ICJ

by Julian Ku

The Asahi Shimbun is running a couple of interesting features on the International Court of Justice and Japan’s relationship with it.  One essay features interviews with Japan’s current and former members of the ICJ: President Owada and former vice-president Oda.  The other explores what might happen if Japan were to somehow send its disputes with China and Korea to the ICJ.

“Since we are already facing such an explosive situation, it would probably be good for Japan to take action and suggest that China file a claim–and then respond in court,” said Yoshio Otani, 73, an honorary professor at Hitotsubashi University.

To date, however, the Chinese side has made no move to file a claim unilaterally.

“The stances of both countries with regard to the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands are too far apart to be able to bring the problem to a third party, including to the ICJ, for resolution,” said Xinjun Zhang, 45, an associate professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “The issue of territory, even domestically, is intertwined with ethnic pride. It is a very sensitive matter. Currently, it would be better to think about how to manage the issue rather than try to resolve it.”

I am not sure I agree with Prof. Zhang that the stances of the two countries are “too far apart” to go to a third party, since that is kind of always the case in these kinds of disputes.  But I do agree that it is hard to imagine the China-Japan dispute going to the ICJ.

Having said that, it might be smart politics for Japan to announce its willingness to take the Diaoyutai/Senkaku disputes to the ICJ, and put the onus on China to reject the offer. Japan is already becoming ICJ-savvy in the upcoming Australia Whaling case (hearing finally scheduled for June), they might feel like the ICJ is a good forum for them.   In our panel last week at ASIL, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt suggested that that Japan had already privately made such an offer, and had been turned down.  I wonder if it is now time for Japan to go public with this offer.  Then again, maybe it should sit still and wait and see how the Philippines arbitration turns out, since China has not so suffered any serious damage from their non-response to that claim.


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