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    Greater China
     Sep 16, 2010
China ire at sea chase signals wider reach
By Peter J Brown

In early September, the Minjinyu 5179 was one of 160 Chinese fishing boats working near the Diaoyu (called Senkaku in Japanese) Islands, which occupy the far southwestern corner of Japanese territory close to Taiwan.

And then a chase, and a collision took place.

Photos taken from a distance days later show the bow of the Minjinyu 5179 almost unblemished, while other photos clearly show missing paint and several dents on the hull of the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) patrol vessel Mizuki.

This might appear at first glance to be little more than the result of poor seamanship while the two ships were underway. Instead, this is photographic evidence of an incident that has mushroomed

 

into a major diplomatic dispute between Japan and China.

The Chinese see the incident as much more than an attempt by Japan to make it increasingly difficult for Chinese fishing boats to work near the disputed island group.

"Japan cannot intimidate or antagonize China without serious consequences," blared the Global Times on September 14, several days after the incident. [1]

Japan alleged that the Minjinyu 5179 was fishing illegally in Japanese waters - Chinese vessels are allowed to fish around the Senkaku Islands and well inside the boundaries of Japan's exclusive economic zone - and that the captain of the Chinese vessel, Zhan Qixiong, failed to respond to Japanese orders to halt and then deliberately rammed the Mizuki northwest of Kubashima Island. He ultimately came to a stop two hours later, doing so after colliding with another JCG ship.

What exactly Zhan did to draw the attention of the JCG is unclear - granted he was less than 20 km from the closest island at one point - because this was not one of the busiest fishing days in terms of the number of Chinese vessels operating in the area.

Regardless, the Minjinyu 5179 was seized, along with the captain and crew. The 14 crew members have gone home but Zhan remains in confinement in Okinawa prefecture until September 19, barring an earlier release.

"It will be the last straw for Beijing if Japan insists on trying the Chinese captain for his fishing operation off the Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea," said the Global Times. "Although Japanese leaders hope the fishing boat issue will be seen as a stand-alone incident and will not hurt the two countries' normal relations, it is impossible for China's protest to remain verbal only."

After making it clear that "Japan's handling of the case is seen as a direct challenge of China's sovereignty over the contended islands", the Global Times issued this stern warning:
Suspension of the East China Sea gas field talks, scheduled for mid-September, is the first move of China's counter strike. Given the decades of relationship building after WWII, China will probably not resort to force over this incident. But, if the protests from the Chinese government and public don't bring the Japanese back from the brink of a relations breakdown, Beijing has to consider stronger retaliatory measures.
Other obvious moves include the suspension of a high-level visit to Japan by a senior Chinese government official, and a series of awkward maneuvers southwest of Okinawa between Chinese maritime patrol ships and Japanese survey vessels which suggested that more confrontations could soon occur.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the Japanese actions as a whole in this instance violated the law of nations and were "ridiculous, illegal and invalid".

"Japan will reap as it has sown, if it continues to act recklessly," Jiang warned.

Is this more than an untimely error on the part of a Chinese fishing boat captain? After all, any attempt by China to fabricate an incident at sea involving a Chinese commercial or fishing vessel would not come as a surprise. While the focus previously has been primarily on the South China Sea, it is possible that China may also be preparing to make more aggressive moves in the East China Sea. [2]

Strangely, the Chinese media has attempted to highlight Taiwan's role here as well. Taiwan has long claimed sovereignty over what it calls the Tiaoyutai Islands - its name for the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, located approximately 150 km from its northeast coast.

As the tensions were rising, Taiwanese immigration and Coast Guard officials quickly ended a plan by activists from Hong Kong and Macau to sail on a small flotilla of Taiwanese fishing boats to the islands. Not all the Taiwanese boats proceeded, and those that did were under strict orders to engage in sport fishing only and not any closer than 40 km from the shores of the disputed islands, an activity which is permitted. Only Taiwanese citizens were on board.

Taiwan's stance here was misrepresented by the Global Times, for example, as the flotilla in question was identified as one sailing in support of China's claim.

Global Times not only made the mistake of overlooking past confrontations over the same islands involving Taiwan and Japan including the 2008 sinking of a large Taiwanese fishing vessel after a collision with Japanese warship, but it put the spotlight on the Taiwanese claim of sovereignty - via references to the role of Taiwan's navy - in a way that only served the purposes of those in favor of maintaining Taiwan's independence.

"Chan Miu-tak, of the Hong Kong-based Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, said he is prepared for the possibility that he may be detained by the Japanese at Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan," said Global Times.

"An employee of the Taiwan Coastal Patrol Office said that two or three naval ships that patrol in the northwest maritime space of Taiwan will protect the activists if there is any incident." [3]

In another editorial, in which Global Times elected to omit the 2008 incident entirely, it called attention to Japan's calm and cool-headed approach the situation in the past.

"The Japanese government has avoided using force in recent years when dealing with fishing boats from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan near the Diaoyu Islands." [4]

A legal scholar with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Chinese Maritime Development Research Center, Jin Yongming, documented how Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi used harsh language when he demanded that the Japanese ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, inform his government that Japan needed to release the entire Chinese crew and the fishing boat immediately.

Jin then adopted a rather hard tone to play perhaps to a growing sense of resentment in China that threatens to undermine warming relations between Japan and China.

"Japan infringed upon China's sovereignty and territory integrity when Japanese patrol ships chased the Chinese fishing trawler and boarded it forcibly. But the Japanese Coast Guard did not stop at that. It even applied Japanese law in the waters off the Diaoyu Islands, which since ancient times have been Chinese territory. Japan had no right to press charges against the Chinese fishermen according to its domestic laws," said Jin.

"To strengthen its presence around the Diaoyu Islands, the Japanese Coast Guard has been sending patrol ships for some time now and has repeatedly chased Chinese fishing and survey vessels. But such action cannot alter the fact that Diaoyu Islands belong to China. And history vouches for that."

Jin then demanded that Japan should apologize and offer the fishermen adequate compensation. [5]

Han Dongping, a professor of history and political science at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina went one step further.

Han blamed former Taiwan strongman Chiang Kai-shek's generosity and "Chiang's decision to return Japanese atrocities in China with kindness", as creating the foundation for this ongoing dispute. While this may be true, Han credited Chinese premier Zhou Enlai for actually sealing the deal in terms of terminating China's legitimate claim to the Diaoyu Islands.

Han then urged Japan to reverse course and do the right thing because, "the disputes over Diaoyu Islands can easily escalate into something that China may use to resettle its accumulated grievances it suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialists in the long distant past".

"Arousing Chinese people's nationalism will do Japan no good in the long run. As China acquires more military capabilities, and as the Chinese people clamor for the government to take a harder stand against Japan's aggression, the Chinese government is no longer in a position to ignore the popular demand in China," said Han. "Japan needs to be careful when it takes steps to escalate the dispute. What will Japan do if several hundred Chinese fishing boats show up in the disputed areas? Will it be able to detain them all and arrest them all?" [6]

What cannot go unmentioned at the same time, however, is the strange disconnect in United States statements and actions as this incident was unfolding.

On the one hand, the US had dispatched teams of officials to China, South Korea and Japan to ensure that not only would all three nations remain firmly united and fully in support of US-backed sanctions against Iran, but that China would not attempt to take advantage of - or otherwise exploit - the commercial opportunities created when the withdrawal of Japanese and South Korean companies from Iran was completed.

And as the Chinese and Japanese vessels were slamming into each other, the US submarine USS Hawaii quietly made its way to its berth at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.

The fact that the USS Hawaii, a so-called "Virginia class" submarine which is the US Navy's most sophisticated fast attack sub that is designed to perform in shallow seas in particular, has now joined the US Navy's 7th Fleet off China for the first time is not welcome news for anyone who might infer that Japan is an adversary.

“We are the first, but there are more to follow,” said the submarine's commanding officer, Commander Stephen Mack. [7]

This summer, it is not just the movement of US aircraft carriers, but the growing number of US submarines operating in the western Pacific in particular which is sending a message about US resolve.

It all started with the US display of a few of its submarines several weeks earlier. There was a simultaneous sighting of three US guided missile submarines in Asian waters, and this was highly unusual, too. These three so-called SSGNs, which have shed their Trident nuclear-tipped missiles and are now equipped with several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles, suddenly surfaced in full view in three harbors within hours of each other in late June - in Subic Bay in the Philippines, in Pusan, South Korea, and in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

This kind of activity involving US submarines can attract lots of attention and is rare indeed. It might be described as merely a coincidence, but not here.

A few hours after the USS Hawaii tied up to the dock at Yokosuka, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, recalled the US stance of the 1950s as she reminded China how the US was quickly regaining any lost ground in Asia.
As Dean Acheson put it in 1951, "The ability to evoke support from others is quite as important as the capacity to compel." To this end we have repaired old alliances and forged new partnerships. We have strengthened institutions that provide incentives for cooperation, disincentives for sitting on the sidelines, and defenses against those who would undermine global progress. And we have championed the values that are at the core of the American character.
One can only wonder if the well-placed mention by Clinton of the term "core" here was meant to offset China's recent emphasis on US threats to its "core interests".

"Now there should be no mistake: This administration is also committed to maintaining the greatest military in the history of the world and, if needed, to vigorously defending our friends and ourselves," said Clinton. "After more than a year-and-a-half, we have begun to see the dividends of our strategy. We are advancing America's interests and making progress on some of our most pressing challenges. Today we can say with confidence that this model of American leadership works, and that it offers our best hope in a dangerous world." [8]

An increasingly dangerous world afloat, one might add.

Notes
1. More countermeasures against Japan, Global Times, Sep 14, 2010.
2. US and China can't calm South China Sea, Jun 4, 2010.
3. Activists from HK and Taiwan sail towards Diaoyu Islands, Global Times, Sep 13, 2010.
4. Japan attempts dangerous precedent, Sep 13, 2010.
5. Japan must honor law of sea, China Daily, Sep 14, 2010.
6. Disputes over Diaoyu Islands do Japan no good, China Daily, Sep 14, 2010.
7. Submarine USS Hawaii first of its class to enter Western Pacific, Stars and Stripes, Sep 7, 2010.
8. Remarks on United States Foreign Policy, US Department of State, Sep 8, 2010.

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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