Upping the Ante in China-Japan Clash

The escalating dispute between Beijing and Tokyo about Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain is a challenge for Washington and raises concerns about Chinese maritime activities in the Asia Pacific, says CFR’s Sheila Smith.  

September 22, 2010 2:17 pm (EST)

Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

Japan’s arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler in disputed waters on September 8 continues to provoke Chinese reaction. Tuesday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao strongly urged the captain’s unconditional release and threatened "further Chinese actions" should Japan not comply. Diplomatic relations have been interrupted, but the Kan Cabinet insists this is a domestic law enforcement matter and says it will hold the forty-one-year-old captain, Zhan Qixiong, until the investigation is complete.

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Washington is treading carefully in this unexpected confrontation, but the U.S.-Japan security alliance continues to be the prism through which any impending crisis is viewed. Vice President Joseph Biden, in a meeting at the U.S.-Japan Council on Monday, stated that the U.S. strategic relationship with China "goes through Tokyo"--a clear effort to remind the Chinese (and perhaps to reassure the Japanese) that the United States will not be ambivalent in its response to a Chinese effort to test the alliance.

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Oceans and Seas

The incident itself is a first. Japan and China have contested claims over the Senkaku Islands (Chinese refer to these as the Daiyutai). The potential for gas and oil resources on the uninhabited islands was discovered over forty years ago, and many believe this is the real motive behind Chinese claims. Taiwanese protestors rather than Chinese fishermen have, to date, been the main source of challenge to Japanese sovereignty. Yet serious run-ins with the coast guard have been rare--and peacefully resolved. This time, Captain Zhan’s vessel apparently struck two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats, thus the criminal charge of "obstructing the public duties" of Japan’s maritime police.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan will not be meeting this year at the UN General Assembly, a noticeable absence on the traditional diplomatic dance card at the annual UN gathering. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, civic groups claiming Chinese sovereignty over the Daiyutai/Senkaku Islands still hope to set sail for those waters in protest, but have yet to receive permission from Chinese authorities to depart.

Japanese authorities continue to call for a calm handling of the incident. Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, has repeatedly stated that this is an issue of domestic law, not a territorial issue. This evening (Tokyo time) Japan’s Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku suggested that Japan and China must see this incident in the context of their future visions for the bilateral relationship, and called for strategic dialogue between the two countries.

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The formal Chinese government protest against Japanese detention of the vessel and its captain has been gaining momentum. On September 12, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo called Japan’s Ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, into a meeting in the early hours of the morning, suggesting an added intensity to the Chinese reaction. Yet even as the formal claims against Japan increased, the two governments were working to ease the tensions. The next day, Japan returned the fourteen crew members to China, and turned the fishing trawler over to a new captain flown in to bring the vessel home.

Chinese authorities, too, must have understood the need to avoid a repeat of the violent demonstrations against the Japanese in China that happened in 2005. September 18 was the anniversary of the Mukden Incident of 1931 that sparked the invasion of China by Japan, and thus a sensitive reminder of past animosities. But despite worries about mass demonstrations--and threats in the Chinese blogosphere about hacking attacks on Japan--the weekend passed with only minor incidents.

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Oceans and Seas

This recent round of tensions with Japan is not seen only in terms of its bilateral impact, but also comes at a time the region is seeking greater clarity from Beijing about its commitment to maritime stability in the broader Asia-Pacific region.

These efforts notwithstanding, as worries about popular reaction in China focused media attention, the Ishigaki branch of the Naha District Court on September 19 approved a request to extend the detention of the ship captain for another ten days to complete the investigation. This invited further protest from the Chinese government and prompted Beijing to halt bilateral ministerial level meetings. Cultural exchanges have also been affected. A Chinese government-sponsored trip scheduled for one thousand Japanese youth to participate in the Shanghai expo was postponed, and a large group of Chinese tourists canceled plans to visit Japan. Sales of tickets for a Chinese concert tour by SMAP, a highly popular Japanese pop group, were also halted.

Beyond the heightened hostilities are more troubling concerns. Most conspicuous has been the impact on the Sino-Japanese effort to complete a 2008 commitment to jointly develop the gas fields in the East China Sea.

On September 17, Japan’s foreign minister reported that it had discovered that China shipped drilling equipment to the Chunxiao gas field in the East China Sea (known to the Japanese as the Shirabata field) suggesting the possibility that Beijing was abandoning its effort to work with Tokyo on the joint resource development plan. Chinese authorities responded immediately by asserting it had full sovereignty over that field and would proceed as it wished. That evening, Maehara picked up the thread and suggested Japan would take "countermeasures" should China begin drilling.

For Washington, this sudden flaring of tensions between Japan and China presents two sets of pressures. The first is the need to repair the bilateral alliance relationship with Tokyo following Kan’s reelection as head of his party on September 14. With a new government in Tokyo, Washington must put an end to the strain that characterized the last year of relations with Tokyo, which had been prompted by the festering problems associated with relocating the U.S. Marine base in Okinawa. As Vice President Biden’s statement suggests, the Obama administration will now focus on ensuring that there are no doubts as to the health of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

The second challenge for Washington is the broader question of Chinese maritime behavior in the Asia Pacific. Already, concerns surrounding Chinese actions in the South China Sea have prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to openly address the need for greater transparency and confidence with regard to the increasing number of incidents between Chinese maritime forces and those of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Likewise, Chinese statements made regarding its claims in the Yellow Sea also suggested a new effort to challenge the status quo in maritime regions further to the north. This recent round of tensions with Japan, therefore, is not seen only in terms of its bilateral impact, but also comes at a time the region is seeking greater clarity from Beijing about its commitment to maritime stability in the broader Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s courts have stipulated that Captain Zhan can be detained legally until September 29. Thus, the two countries have another week to find a resolution to the current standoff.  Japan will need to consider how to handle the trial should he be indicted, and already there are rumors that videos of the incident will be made public when charges are filed.

There is still room for more escalation, however. The outcome could be a return to the deep freeze of the Sino-Japanese relations that characterized the Koizumi years, when Yasukuni Shrine visits became the bone of contention. Yet this incident raises new questions about the future and elevates the specter of a more heated phase of contention between Tokyo and Beijing.

There are ample reasons for concern about China’s growing willingness to challenge its neighbors in maritime Asia. If not handled well, this incident could introduce a more contentious and dangerous era of relations in an already troubled Northeast Asia. For Washington, this signals the need for an intensified effort to balance its alliance relations with its effort to engage Beijing in a regional dialogue on maritime stability.


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