China has taken a hard-line stance over Japan’s continuing detention of the captain of the Chinese fishing trawler which was involved in a collision with Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats near the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. The Senkaku islands are administered by Japan but contested by China and Taiwan. The September 7 incident near the disputed territory has developed into a diplomatic flap between the two countries with China cutting ministerial and higher level exchanges with Japan in response to an Okinawa court’s further extension of the detention of the Chinese captain who has been charged with illegally operating in Japanese waters and obstructing Japanese officers from performing their duties.
Beijing has also postponed talks with Tokyo over a treaty on the development of a joint gas field in the East China Sea slated to be signed later this month, and has reportedly dispatched drilling equipment to the disputed gas field known as Shirakaba in Japan and as Chunxiao in China.
The Chinese action in the East China Sea is certainly an over-reaction to the incident. Beijing is using these tactics to ensure the release of the trawler’s skipper as Chinese nationalists are asking it to take harsher measures. In reaction to Japan’s detention of the fishing vessel’s captain, Chinese activists staged protests in Beijing holding placards reading “Get the Japanese out of the Diaoyu Islands,” “Overthrow small Japan”. Chinese zealots had done similar acts in the past, perhaps with the backing of Chinese officials, to claim sovereignty over the disputed island. Japan had arrested seven Chinese activists in 2004 when they landed on one of the islands near Okinawa. China on that occasion had used similar tactics and Japan had to release the activists without indicting them.
But this time Japan has indicated that it is not going to cave in to Beijing’s pressure and the detention of the Chinese captain will continue. Japan is also mulling the conduct of its own test drilling as a “countermeasure” and also plans to reinforce surveillance with P-3C patrol aircraft in the area. On its part, it has cancelled a bilateral summit meeting between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at the sidelines of UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week.1
Seen historically, the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in dispute was incorporated into Japanese territory in 1895 as part of the Okinawa Prefecture. China and Taiwan, which called them Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai respectively, began their sovereignty claim over the Japanese administered territory in the 1970s. The development coincided with the confirmation of the existence of offshore resources, including oil and gas. The territorial sovereignty issue became more problematic for the leadership of Japan and China as they found it difficult to manage the issue amid rising patriotism in the two countries an integral part of which was claims over the territory. Referring to the disputed Senkaku land issue, Deng Xioping had said in 1978 that, “People of our generation lack wisdom. The next generation is expected to be wiser.” But after a generation, the two sides have yet to find a solution that is acceptable to both sides.2 Instead, the sovereignty issue has aggravated further with the rise of Chinese military power. In 1992, China incorporated Diayotai Islands (in East China Sea) along with the Paracels and Spartly Islands (in South China Sea) by passing the “Laws of Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone”. The law, for the first time, authorized the Chinese Navy to use force to evict foreign naval vessels operating in these waters. Since the 1990s, China has been claiming that these areas in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are a part of its territory which had been taken away when China was weak.3
Seen against this context, it seems that China is deliberately manoeuvring nationalistic sentiments to assert its claim and regain its so-called lost territory. China is usually harsh on clamping down on protests but it allowed the Baodiao activist committee, a group demanding that China assert its authority over the Senkaku Islands, to take out a march on September 3 when Beijing was celebrating the 65th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan in World War II. The group even dared to demonstrate near China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and accused the government of “betraying the country” for agreeing to co-develop the East China Sea natural gas fields with Japan.4
The recent change in the cabinet portfolio in Naoto Kan government has made the issue more difficult for China. A “China hawk” Seiji Maehara has taken over from a “dove”, Tetsuya Okada, as Japanese Foreign Minister on September 16. As soon as Maehara was appointed Foreign Minister, China Central Television, quoting the Japanese media, reported that a “hawk (on China) has been appointed” as Japan’s new foreign minister. Maehara’s reputation is largely attributed to his past remarks. In a speech at a US think tank in late 2005, Maehara, then leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, called China a “realistic threat,” noting that it was building up and modernizing its military capabilities.5 In his first news conference after assuming office, he reiterated that “there is no territorial problem in the East China Sea” as the Senkaku Islands belong to Japan and Japan will take “appropriate steps” if evidence of China’s drilling on the Shirakaba gas field is confirmed.6 These remarks suggest that the new leadership in Tokyo’s foreign ministry is not likely to back down even if China uses this standoff to test Japan.
The China-Japan spat over the disputed territory has seriously dashed Japan’s hope of transforming the disputed sea into a “Sea of Fraternity”, a sentiment that was expressed by former Prime Minister Hatoyama. For his part, Chinese President Hu Jintao had also earlier expressed his desire to make the area a “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”. It is not clear how the latest diplomatic standoff will pan out. But if the dispute is not managed and left to linger, it may emerge as a flashpoint between the two Asian powers with a serious impact on regional security.