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
"Japan cannot intimidate or antagonize China without serious consequences,"
blared the Global Times on September 14, several days after the incident. 
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
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
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. 
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
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." 
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
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
"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
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
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. 
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
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.
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
"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
An increasingly dangerous world afloat, one might add.