As a matter of political pastime or even serious study, leaders and observers often try to note who blinks first in a confrontation between two major powers

Viewed in this perspective, there is a message in the absence of an instant blink-watch when Japan set free the captured Chinese captain of a fishing boat on September 24. He was not formally charged. This can perhaps be treated as a sign of maturity in the enormously complex relationship between Beijing and Tokyo.

However, the statements by the two sides on this event bristled with the tone and tenor of righteous indignation. At the same time, the discernible political mood behind the scenes, a day or two after the captain’s release, was one of trying to prevent a further escalation of tensions. It was too early, at the time of writing, to foresee with certainty how exactly Japan and China ride out this new storm in their increasingly direct and dynamic engagement within the larger framework of inter-state cooperation in East Asia.

At the centre of the controversy was the arrest of the Chinese boat captain and 14 of his compatriots near Diaoyu Islands (known as Senkaku in Japan) in the East China Sea on September 7.

The boat skipper said, after his return to China, that he and his compatriots were engaged in the “legal” activity of fishing near the islands when they were captured by the Japanese. In contrast, Tokyo had maintained ab initio that the fishing boat “collided” with a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat. A top Japanese official said the 15 Chinese nationals were detained for “obstructing” the performance of “official duty” by Japan’s Coast Guard.

What followed was the “examination” of this case “strictly in accordance with Japanese law”. This infuriated Beijing, which interpreted the “collision” as a “mock” episode. Within a week of their arrest, all the fishermen, except the boat’s captain, were set free, with no charges pressed against them.

Beijing said on September 13 that the 14 fishermen “illegally detained by Japan” returned home safely by a chartered plane. The “illegally detained boat also started its journey back”, it was noted. China repeatedly lodged “solemn representations with Japan” before and after the release of the 14 men. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing summed up the mood in China as follows: “The entire Chinese people and compatriots both at home and abroad have condemned Japan’s illegal acts with one voice, which fully embodies the will and resolve of the Chinese government and people to defend their territory and sovereignty.”

Anti-Japan protests

By now, there were signs of anti-Japan protests within China, and Tokyo too persisted with its “due process of law” in regard to the captain. The anti-Japan sentiments in China this time did not reach the crescendo of the protest demonstrations witnessed across Chinese cities in 2005. What enraged the Chinese then was the perceived new evidence of a persistent refusal by the Japanese authorities to record the history of the Second World War as it really happened. Anti-China sentiments publicly surfaced in Japan, too, but until the time of writing there were no major inflammatory incidents.

Even amid signs of efforts on both sides to keep the crisis from turning nasty, their diplomatic mood remained fragile. This became evident at the inaugural Singapore Global Dialogue organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on September 24.

Responding to a question from the RSIS Dean, Barry Desker, on the Beijing-Tokyo row, Tang Jiaxuan, China’s former State Counsellor and former Foreign Minister, criticised Japan’s declared actions of resorting to its “domestic law” in trying to prosecute the boat’s captain. Calling for the skipper’s immediate and unconditional release, Tang defended China’s right to respond through suitable action in the event of the crisis dragging on.

Later, during the conference, Hitoshi Tanaka, Japan’s former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced that the Japanese prosecutors had decided, a few hours earlier, to free the captain. While the announcement was greeted by the delegates with a sigh of relief, what followed was a spirited intervention by Zhu Chenghu, Dean of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Defence Affairs Institute.

Taking exception to Tanaka’s remarks about how Japan had contributed to the development of China’s economy after the end of the Second World War, Zhu noted that such a perspective would not reflect properly the ground realities of China’s own growth story and might not also be conducive to a sense of equality in the Beijing-Tokyo engagement. Zhu disputed the legality of Tokyo’s current “control” over Diaoyu Islands and recounted how Japan had come to acquire those areas. To this, Tanaka responded by asking whether Japan’s role as a contributor to China’s latest economic growth could be denied. As for the legal issues at stake, Tanaka said he would rest his case on the grounds of his freedom of expression.

Strategic value

Clear as daylight, Japan now does control Senkaku and the adjacent waters. Equally clear to both sides is that China treats Diaoyu as its “inherent territory”. This was indeed emphasised by the Foreign Ministry in Beijing immediately after the news of the arrests became known.

In both the Chinese and Japanese languages, the names of the islands are said to mean the same, denoting their link to sea-faring fishing. However, the importance of these islands and the surrounding waters lies in their perceived strategic value to both sides in economic and geopolitical terms.

Analysing “Tokyo’s grand strategy and the future of East Asia”, Richard J. Samuels, an expert on Japanese foreign and security policies, has noted that “Japan has endeavoured to interpret [the status of Senkaku] as islands [covered] under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Tokyo, in his view, has sought to “extend its own exclusive economic zone” by bringing Senkaku under the purview of the international law of the sea.

Japan took possession of the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain of eight uninhabited islands in 1895, if not earlier in historical terms, at the conclusion of the First Sino-Japanese War. However, experts are divided on whether the relevant Treaty of Shimonoseki actually confirmed Japanese sovereignty over Senkaku. In any case, some foreign policy analysts in Japan have narrated how the nationalist Right in Japan “built lighthouses” on Senkaku Islands in recent years. However, seven Chinese nationals landed there in 2004, an action that spurred the Japanese authorities to tighten their control over the islands.

The value of these islands to Japan and China is heightened by the perceived oil and gas reserves in the maritime zone of the East China Sea. In fact, at the height of the crisis, China reaffirmed its “full sovereign and jurisdictional rights over the Chunxiao oil-and-gas field” located not far from Diaoyu Islands. Also defended as “reasonable and lawful” were China’s current activities at that field site. Beijing said in mid-September that “marine vessels” were also sent to the Diaoyu area to protect the fishing rights of Chinese nationals in those waters.

The Japanese version reflects more or less a mirror-image of China’s policy. A Japanese spokesman, Hidenobu Sobashima, told this correspondent from Tokyo on September 25 that Senkaku Islands “belong to Japan historically and on the basis of international law”. Tokyo, he emphasised, was in “effective control” of the relevant maritime zone and “there is no issue to be resolved” with China in this regard. The reported request by China for an apology and compensation for the detention of 15 Chinese nationals was, therefore, “unacceptable and groundless”, said Sobashima.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao have also intervened during this latest crisis through statements reflecting their positions.

The continuing presence of the military machine of the United States and its troops at bases in Japan not far from Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a factor that neither Tokyo nor Beijing can overlook in their own bilateral equation. The U.S. and Japanese military forces, as long-time allies since the end of the Second World War, have held “joint training” in regard to the defence of Senkaku Islands. In 2006, the two sides even held a military exercise to ward off “a mock invasion” by China of “Japanese-controlled [maritime] territory” in the East China Sea.

Observers such as Martin Jacques, who has written the treatise When China Rules the World, have pointed out that China has offered to shelve the issue of sovereignty over these islands for now. This aspect came into focus during the Singapore Global Dialogue as well. It is, however, anybody’s guess whether the latest China-Japan row will simmer or blow over.

– P.S. Suryanarayana