Page 1 of 2 Japan poured oil on troubled waters
By Peter Lee
In the fuss over Japan's detention of the Chinese fishing vessel and its
captain, Zhan Qixiong, after a scuffle near the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, the
world received a foretaste of how World War III might break out in the China
All it takes is a confrontation at some contested but otherwise insignificant
rock, a combustible combination of rhetoric, provocation, and retaliation, an
American propensity for meddling, and the participation of a credulous and
obliging media ...
... and, perhaps, the active involvement of Japan, which already has some
experience in igniting world wars in doomed attempts
to extract itself from strategic and economic cul de sacs.
A fender-bender between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Coast Guard
vessels on September 7 led to the detention of Zhan and the provocative
assertion that his case would be adjudicated under Japanese domestic law,
rather than resolved through some diplomatic back-and-forth between Tokyo and
News reports indicate that Zhan was something of a hothead. All it took was a
Japanese over-reaction to see him brought home a national hero.
Japan's hawkish minister Seiji Maehara can take a lion's share of the credit or
blame for blowing up the incident. The Japanese newspaper Asahi reported the
timeline as follows - Maehara was still Minister of Land, Infrastructure,
Transport and Tourism - in charge of the Coast Guard - at the time of the
incident, he was appointed foreign minister on September 21.
after the trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels on Sept 7, Maehara
called Coast Guard Commandant Hisayasu Suzuki and told him, "The captain of the
Chinese fishing boat must be arrested."
Maehara also called Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and told him, "It
is better to persist with a resolute attitude against China."
At first, China responded calmly.
Reflecting back on that time, a Chinese government source said, "By sticking to
a calm response, China was trying to encourage Japan to release the captain on
its own accord."
But Maehara refused to back down.
He told close aides: "The prime minister's office was hesitant so I had to make
the decision to arrest the captain. There was no mistake in the handling of the
In this context, it is rather ironic that Japan
would demand diplomatic engagement of China in the South China Sea while
simultaneously foreswearing it over the Daioyutai/Senkaku Islands.
It was also interesting that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku story is not simply a matter
of Japan standing up to the big Chinese bully.
By distance, geography, and history Taiwan has the best claim on what it calls
the Tiaoyutai Islands, which Japan acquired during the course of some imperial
skullduggery during the 1870s, and it responded to the incident by vociferously
advancing its interest.
President Ma Ying-jeou, who has played the Tiaoyutai card his entire political
career, dispatched 12 Coast Guard vessels to shield a boat of Taiwanese
activists that made a symbolic approach within 19 miles of the island on
The Japanese Coast Guard warned them off. Taiwanese media reported:
several occasions the Kan En No. 99," which means "Showing Grace" in the
Chinese language, was just two meters from being rammed by Japan's patrol
Taking into consideration the aggressiveness of the
Japanese Coast Guard, it is easy to understand how frustration, fear, and anger
might have combined with poor seamanship and bullheadedness to produce Captain
After Captain Zhan's detention was extended - and it appeared he would soon be
indicted in a Japanese court - China went ballistic, both in the public and
Beijing canceled scheduled negotiations with Japan over undersea oil and gas
deposits. It also canceled bilateral talks on airline flights and requested
Chinese travel agencies not to accept applications for tour groups to visit
Japan - scuppering two initiatives that Maehara had championed as tourism
China allegedly cut off exports of rare earth oxides to Japan and detained four
Japanese citizens in Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei province, for
espionage-related activity, apparently as retaliation. Three of the men were
released on Thursday but one remains in Chinese custody.
Judging from the Asahi article, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was not pleased that
his term had begun with a major diplomatic dust-up courtesy of Maehara and his
patron, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) secretary general Katsuya Okada.
Okada and Maehara are the two most powerful proponents of a strong US alliance
within the traditionally leftist and non-aligned DPJ.
As exchanges with China became more heated, Maehara recklessly upped the ante
by pulling in the United States.
After Maehara visited with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York, AFP
"According to the Japanese minister, Clinton said that the
Senkakus ... are subject to Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty, which
authorizes the US to protect Japan in the event of an armed attack 'in the
territories under the administration of Japan'," the report said. 
Whatever was said in private, publicly the State Department did not inject
itself in the controversy by explicitly extending the US security umbrella over
the Senkakus. According to the AFP report, State Department spokesperson
Crowley limited himself to the observation that the Senkaku issue was
It appears that Maehara abused the secretary of state's confidence by making
public her sensitive and probably strongly caveated assurances of US support
for Japan, in order to relieve his personal political embarrassment.
Hopeful overreach continued with the Japanese press reporting that Defense
Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the United States'
joint chiefs of staff, had, in the words of the Japanese public-service
broadcaster NHK, "indicated that the US security agreement with Japan covers
the Senkaku Islands". 
"Indicated" is much too strong a word.
The actual transcript of the Department of Defense briefing was long on
waffling and offered nothing in the way of an explicit commitment:
Chinese Premier Wen in New York on Tuesday threatened action against Japan if
it didn't return the captain of the ship. I'm wondering, does the US security
umbrella extend to the Senkakus - the Senkaku islands?
ADM MULLEN: I think we're watching those - that tension very, very carefully,
and certainly our commitment to the region remains. And, you know, we're
hopeful that the political and diplomatic efforts would reduce that tension
specifically, and haven't seen anything that would, I guess, raise the alarm
levels higher than that. And obviously we're very, very strongly in support of,
you know, our ally in that region, Japan.
Q And second -
SEC GATES: And we'll - and we would fulfill our alliance responsibilities. 
In follow-on questions at the September 24 press briefing, the US State
Department cited remarks by Jeffrey Bader, chairman of the National Security
Council that the dispute was a matter between China and Japan. 
It appears that Kan cut the legs out from under Maehara and Okada in the best
circular firing squad tradition of the hapless DPJ by agreeing to Zhan's
release. The two hawks are striving to disguise their embarrassment with
escalating anti-Chinese bluster.
At a time that China was saying that the case of Captain Zhan was "basically
over with" , Maehara was claiming in the Japanese media that China's demand
for an apology demonstrated its "undemocratic nature". He also made the
provocative statement that China might be preparing to violate an agreement
with Japan not to drill unilaterally for oil and gas in contested portions of
the East China Sea.
Despite Japan's humiliation, the US may content itself with a propaganda
windfall. Any threat, either real or imputed, that China will deploy its
military, economic, and financial clout to advance its interests in the East
and South China Seas, strengthens the desire of China's neighbors for a closer
Doyle McManus, the Washington correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, delivered
the conventional wisdom:
Because of China's truculence, US relations
with Japan, Korea and Vietnam have almost never been better. 
Actually, the root cause of friction in East Asia in 2010 is the Barack Obama
administration's determination to "return to Asia" and the encouragement this
has given to anxious nations to pursue confrontations with China they might
Certainly, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have been more willing than before to yank
the whiskers of the Chinese dragon.
It was Japanese, not Chinese truculence, that dictated the decision made at the
cabinet level to arrest and try Zhan after the collision near
And, remarkably, Japan has also involved itself in China's other maritime
headache: Vietnam's efforts to engage the United States as a counterweight to
China, particularly over the nagging question of the Hoang Sa/Paracel/Xisha
Islands in the South China Seas, which China seized from South Vietnam after a
bloody encounter in 1974.
The issue has gained heightened visibility with the report that China "formally
declared to the United States that the South China Sea is a core interest",
implying to Western observers that China regarded the fate of the uninhabited
islands and their associated oil and gas deposits as an existential issue
presumably worthy of the aggressive attentions of the People's Liberation Army.
In keeping with the theme of dubious, thinly sourced news reports with a
Japanese link, this news item is derived, virtually in its entirety, from a
brief report filed by Kyodo News Service's Washington Bureau on July 3, that
the Chinese stated this position to James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader when they
were in Beijing in March 2010. 
The report is anonymously sourced from somebody who was apparently not directly
involved in the meetings - the report states that the Chinese position was
"presumably" conveyed by State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
It is also interesting that this world-historic scoop was leaked to a Japanese
news office in Washington; none of the plugged-in American news organizations
got the same story at that time (the only apparent corroboration is a statement
in a July 2010 story by James Pomfret that Dai Bingguo has made the South China
Sea core interest representation to Hillary Clinton during a "tense exchange"
in May); and, as far as can be seen, nobody has ever asked Steinberg and Bader
to confirm the report.
It would appear noteworthy that the Chinese thought fit to announce this
position to the only party they are attempting to exclude from the South China
Sea dispute - the United States - while not conveying it to Vietnam, the
Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, or Indonesia - the interlocutors with whom it is
trying to impose a series of bilateral negotiations.
China has never officially confirmed or denied the story.
As far as the public record goes, China is still committed to freedom of
navigation in the South China Sea, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in
the South China Sea (a standstill agreement negotiated with ASEAN in 2002), and
negotiated settlements over disputed islands.
Within China, there can be found a certain skepticism that the South China Sea
core interest statement went down the way the US said it did or, indeed, if it
ever happened at all. 
However, the story is highly significant as it signaled a new eagerness by the
United States to inject itself in the South China Sea disputes as the champion
of Association of Southeast Asian Nations members - especially Vietnam -
against Chinese territorial overreach.