SINOGRAPH Vague sea borders let hawks pick their fight
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The question of who ultimately owns the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands
scattered in the middle of the ocean between China and Japan has lingered for
decades over the political and economic regional balance of power and could
well take a few more decades to settle.
While Tokyo is officially investigating the incident in early September when a
Chinese fishing boat, the Minjinyu 5179, was chased by the Japanese
coast guard, and Beijing is seething with rage because of the investigation, a
crowd of questions surrounds the incident. Very little is clear, and so it is
uncertain who picked the fight.
At the time of the incident, some 160 Chinese fishing vessels were working in
the shallow waters near the islands. Was the
Minjinyu 5179 doing anything special? Was it the first time that a
Chinese boat was hemmed in by Japanese patrols? If it was not the first time,
at other times, did Chinese sailors obey Japanese orders once spotted? Why did
the Minjinyu 5179 not obey this time? Was it only the Japanese who
picked the fight?
Was the Chinese vessel simply a fishing boat, or did it have other purposes?
Was it spying on submarine routes or other things?
Were the Japanese enforcing the limits around the islands for the first time?
If not - and it is most likely it wasn't the first time - why did Tokyo decide
to blow it up this time, during a delicate political power struggle for the
leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan(DPJ)? At the same time as
the incident, Ichiro Ozawa was challenging Prime Minister Naoto Kan for the DPJ
presidency. Did the Japanese navy take the lead over the politicians? Or were
the politicians in Tokyo cueing the navy?
Or was Beijing trying to prod Tokyo at a sensitive time, shortly after China
overtook Japan's gross domestic product to become the world's second-largest
economy after the United States? Again, was it the Chinese military or the
government? Or was the incident simply something that got out of hand as the
vessel rammed the Japanese boat? Or did they just crash against each other
because of the waves or a captain's mistake?
Additionally, why did Japan decide to make a case out of it by reporting it?
Many such incidents took place during the Cold War, but they almost all went
ignored. Was the Minjinyu 5179 one of many unaccounted incidents? In
this case, why inform about this one and ignore the others?
The Japanese reported the story first, but perhaps they had to because they
arrested the crew. Anyway, could the arrest go unaccounted for, and why did
they have to arrest the crew? Couldn't they simply stop, reprimand the crew,
and return them to China?
None of these questions has a clear answer, and possibly there will never be
answers, since both sides, with the facts in their hands, have an interest in
presenting their own versions of the story.
Is it just a coincidence that the incident occurred just weeks after US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the South China Sea, claimed
by China and six other neighboring countries and territories, was of strategic
importance for America, something that ruffled many feathers in Beijing? Is it
another coincidence that it came after Beijing voiced its displeasure over the
joint US-South Korean naval exercises just off the North Korean waters? Is
there a broader plot by the US to hem in China, or by China trying to push its
Here is the crux: all around China there are vague sea boundaries, with even
vaguer claims, and any side can push the envelope, or take actions that may be
perceived as pushing the envelope. At any given moment an aircraft, a submarine
or a fishing boat could cause an incident. Somebody can then leak it to the
press and have it become a big international issue, stirring public emotions
that kindle other incidents. In a matter of days, it could become a wildfire in
which other countries demonize China or China demonizes other countries.
In other words, China can pick a fight with the rest of the world just by
pushing the envelope on its vague ocean borders. Similarly, any country in the
world can push China into a fight by stirring trouble with one of its
During the Cold War, it was clear that incidents could fan the flames of public
opinion and things could easily get out of control. Therefore, they were kept
out of the public eye, and if they were leaked, it was clear that the tension
was rising. At the time, besides the rules of conduct on the field, the sides
believed it was necessary to muffle incidents - or reveal them according to
One way to handle them with China in the future could be to agree to a mutual
''non-disclosure agreement''. Therefore, it would be clear that the one
breaking the agreement was the one wanting to pick a fight. As nobody wishes to
be seen as the cause of a clash, there could be some incentive to restrain
people on the field.
Moreover, the Minjinyu 5179 incident underscores once again a deep
weakness in China. The government is dogged by hawks who want to start a fight
with America. There are also doves, wishing to come to terms or even to
"surrender" to America. Nobody knows for sure how strong either camp is, but
certainly the hawks are pretty vocal.
If the system were to become democratic and the issue went to a vote, it is
most likely that the hawks, appealing to the basest Chinese instincts and the
half-hidden xenophobia dating back to colonial times, could perform well by
fanning the flames of any "foreign provocation". In fact, opposition to alien
prevarication or invasion brought down the empire, which was deemed too weak to
deal with foreigners. And it was what made Mao Zedong's fortunes, as he managed
to portray himself as a true patriot against Chiang Kai-shek (the nationalist
leader), who was perceived as too weak with the invading Japanese.
The Chinese government has an interest in trying to come to terms with
foreigners, who also provided the atmosphere and conditions for the
extraordinary growth of the past 30 years, and has little interest in riding
the tiger of nationalism. The apparent target of nationalists is foreign
governments, but the real target is their own government that could easily be
accused of being too weak with foreigners. Therefore, this government, if it
wants to carry on with opening up and trading with the world, and being without
the mandate of a popular vote, has an interest in squashing and forgetting
about these incidents, which put it on the spot.
But a democratically elected government could be in no position to ignore those
incidents, especially if the nationalists were openly prodding its flanks and
threatening to undermine a parliamentary majority by shouting xenophobic
slogans in their own free press. In other words, an undemocratic China, fully
integrated into the world market, although weak because of a government without
a popular mandate, can be in a position to cave in to foreign requests. A
democratic China could react very differently.
We tend to forget that early 20th century Germany, which gingerly started World
War I, the mother of all wars in Europe and the beginning of the end of the
European domination of the world, was fully democratic. War was also voted for
by the Social Democrats who, according to the then popular belief, were
supposed to be pacifists, as proletarians' rights were thought to be without
frontiers. In a similar fashion, a future democratic China could well be more
war-mongering than present authoritarian China.
Here, there could be a paradox for America: if it wants to avoid a
confrontation with China, it might have to cooperate more closely with
authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP); if the US wants war, it could
conversely try to push for a democratic China.
In a similar way, egged on by foreigners prickling over disputed areas, a
nationalist group within the CCP could stage a coup in China and embark the
country on a defense of its borders, as Chinese extra-nationalists claim that
the People's Republic lost territories to all of its neighbors.
This forecast may be wrong, and surely nobody can be certain about future
developments. Yet there are many reasons to tread carefully on territorial
disputes, both for China and for its neighbors - unless either party wishes for
an open conflict.
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa. His e-mail is