How a minor China-Japan fishing dispute blew into a diplomatic hurricane
The confrontation in disputed waters between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessels have quickly soured China-Japan relations. Neither governments appear ready to lose face in the standoff.
What began as a routine fisheries dispute near a string of uninhabited rocky islets in the East China Sea has blown into a major diplomatic storm between Asia’s two economic powerhouses, both of them hung up on the sensitive issues of national sovereignty and international status.Skip to next paragraph
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Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese governments appear ready to lose face in the standoff, nor to risk disappointing their easily angered publics. “In these circumstances,” says Takashi Inogushi, head of the University of Niigata in Japan, “it is very difficult for either side to do anything” to break the stalemate.
Beijing has been relentlessly raising the stakes in its bid to win the release of a Chinese trawler captain held by the Japanese authorities for the past two weeks. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao warned this week that “if Japan persists in its mistake, China will take further action and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences.”
Tokyo, meanwhile, has insisted on its legal right to investigate allegations that the captain deliberately rammed two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats, but is calling for negotiations.
“Making waves over an accidental incident runs counter to the national interest of both countries” the new Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said this week.
China has turned down invitations to talk, saying that only the immediate release of the fishing captain can resolve the issue.
The issue behind the issue
Though Japan administers the disputed islands, known in Chinese as the Diaoyu and in Japanese as the Senkaku, China also claims them. The two sides agreed 30 years ago to shelve the territorial dispute in order to cooperate on fisheries and gas-drilling projects, but the current row illustrates how easily and quickly Sino-Japanese relations can deteriorate.
China is especially sensitive to questions of sovereignty, whether they be raised in Tibet, Taiwan, or islands that Beijing claims throughout the oceans that lap its eastern shores.
And with China’s leaders beginning to jockey for position in advance of the 2012 Communist Party Congress that will select the next leadership, “this is no time to be seen as being conciliatory,” says Drew Thompson, head of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington. “The safest position is to be a hard-liner with regard to outside actors,” he adds.
Similarly, in Tokyo, “it is politically important not to appear soft on China” for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which is struggling in the polls, says Tobias Harris, who runs the ObservingJapan.com website. “The government is unwilling to bend on its position.”
The sovereignty dispute is particularly delicate in the wake of China’s emergence as the second-largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan, according to figures released last month.
China has done nothing to salve Japan’s bruised national ego; indeed, for the past year, Beijing has been asserting itself more confidently in international affairs, alarming some of its neighbors.
This stance is unwise, warns Shen Dingli, a prominent Chinese commentator on foreign affairs, because Beijing risks developing a reputation for arrogance. “China should avoid being seen to say, ‘when they are strong we yield, when we are powerful we confront,’ ” he suggests.