China-Japan row threatens five-year warming trend between old foes

The speed with which the fishing boat dispute turned ugly suggests how little has been achieved in China-Japan reconciliation over the past five years, say analysts.

Zhan Qixiong (c.) the captain of a fishing boat that collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol ships, is welcomed on his homecoming in Jinjiang, China, on Sept. 27. Japan has demanded that China pay for repairs to its damaged patrol vessels near the disputed islands, as simmering tension between the two Asian neighbors showed no signs of easing Monday.

As China and Japan continue to spar in their worst diplomatic crisis for five years, prospects that the two Asian giants will be able to enjoy normal relations anytime soon appear slim.

The fierce row over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain in disputed waters “shows how really fragile and easily changeable relations are” between the two countries, says Mel Gurtov, chief editor of the Seoul-based “Asian Perspective” quarterly.

The surprising speed with which the dispute turned ugly also suggested “how little has actually been achieved” by continuous efforts at Sino-Japanese reconciliation over the past five years, says Tobias Harris, who runs

The ball is in whose court?

Japan’s release of the trawler captain, accused of deliberately ramming Japanese patrol boats, did not defuse the crisis. Beijing then demanded an apology and compensation for his detention, which Tokyo bluntly refused.

Instead, Japan has demanded that China pay for repairs to its damaged patrol vessels, and repeatedly complained to Beijing about the presence of two Chinese fisheries protection ships near the islands at the heart of the territorial dispute, since Friday.

China, meanwhile, continues to hold four Japanese citizens arrested last week for investigation on charges they had illegally trespassed into a military zone.

On Tuesday, each side held the other responsible for the next step to improve ties. “The ball is already in China’s court,” said Yoshito Sengoku, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary. “We hope that Japan will take practical steps to repair Sino-Japanese relations,” countered Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

What happened to diplomatic warming?

Only a few weeks ago, Beijing and Tokyo were still pursuing the diplomatic efforts that they had been making for nearly five years to try to mend their troubled relations, soured by Chinese memories of harsh Japanese occupation, military mistrust, and competing territorial claims.

In what the Chinese termed a “warm spring” in the relationship, one Japanese Prime Minister after another visited Beijing, and both Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Chinese President Hu Jintao went to Tokyo. Chinese warships visited Japanese ports, Japanese schoolchildren visited China on school trips, and Sino-Japanese trade leaped to record levels.

None of this seemed to count for much when the Japanese coast guard seized a Chinese trawler and Chinese diplomats went into overdrive to win its release.

“For all the diplomatic visits, all the talking, all the naval exchanges, all the trade, the underlying dynamic of conflict in the East China Sea has not changed,” Mr. Harris points out.

The 'added twist'

That conflict has been given an added twist, says Professor Gurtov, by the “change in relative power and influence” of the two rivals. “Japan has been on a long-term downslide in terms of its capability to project and preserve its interests in Asia, while China is on a very different trajectory,” Gurtov points out.

Japan, however, is not the only neighbor of China’s to have found that closer formal ties with Beijing do not always bear the fruit that had been expected, says Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington.

South Korea, he recalls, was bitterly disappointed earlier this year to find that the “strategic partnership of cooperation” it had sealed with China in 2008 did not mean China would do anything more than express regret at the loss of life when a North Korean submarine sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 36 sailors.

“Are the Chinese ready to pay for their desire for better relations?” wonders Dr. Thompson. “Are they ready to go the extra mile and pay the domestic cost, for example, of accepting Japan’s apology for its behavior during World War II?”

The official messages currently coming out of Beijing suggests not. “Peaceful development does not mean constantly surrendering and giving up core interests,” declared an editorial in last Sunday’s People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist party.

The current crisis, argued the editorial, is a result of “the serious mistakes and ignominious conspiracies of Japan’s policy towards relations with China.

“Japan cannot on the one hand hitch its economy to China’s ‘fast-development train’ and on the other hand be suspicious of China and play the containment card,” People’s Daily warned.

“There will be continuing ups and downs,” predicts Gurtov. “There’ll continue to be positive interactions … in fields such as the environment and trade, but from time to time the negatives, like mistrust and territorial disputes, are going to trump the positives."

It shows, Gurtov adds, “that the strong economic ties that China and Japan have developed don’t necessarily create political bridges that last.”

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