TOKYO - The flare-up between China and Japan over the arrest and dramatic
release of a Chinese fishing-boat captain detained near disputed islands in the
East China Sea symbolizes the rise and fall of Asia's two most powerful
Chinese fishing boat captain Zhan Qixiong, 41, arrived at an airport in Fuzhou
City of Fujian province, his birthplace, on September 25, and descended the
stairs of a Chinese government-chartered airplane with both hands raised in the
air making V signs. He became a national hero in the Chinese media, and his
release was lauded as a significant victory for Chinese diplomacy as Japan
bowed to Beijing's relentless demands to end his detention.
Beijing frightened Tokyo into submission via a de facto ban
imposed by China, according to Japan - and denied by Beijing - on the export of
rare-earths, metals essential to numerous industrial processes and whose supply
is at present largely in Chinese control. China's tourism authorities
discouraged Chinese citizens from traveling to Japan. China was, in a sense,
successful in appealing to the international community the fact that there is a
territorial dispute between the two nations, while Japan claimed there is no
territorial dispute over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the
Diaoyu in China.
The incident and its conclusion touched off a fierce political firestorm in
Tokyo, with the media and opposition hammering and accusing Prime Minister
Naoto Kan and his administration's handling of the incident as ''weak-kneed''
and a display of ''cowardice''. The politically damaged Kan is highly likely to
struggle to clear through the legislature its 4.8 trillion yen (US$57 billion)
supplementary budget, which to spur the deflation-driven, sluggish economy. The
government is expected to compile its proposals for the budget this week.
Reflecting increased tensions between the two nations, more than 10 vehicles of
Japanese right-wing campaigners surrounded a line of motorcoachs carrying about
1,300 Chinese tourists in Fukuoka City on September 29. No one was injured, the
Japanese media reported.
Japan seems to have made a couple of mistakes in dealing with the Chinese
fishing boat, which Tokyo claims had illegally entered Japanese territorial
waters and crashed with Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near the Senkaku
Islands on September 7.
It's first mistake was in how it dealt with the fishing boat captain. Japan
could have deported him to China immediately without judiciary proceedings.
Tokyo has a precedent in the recent past. Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime
minister, deported seven Chinese activists, who landed on Uotsuri Jima in the
The Kan administration did eventually release the captain, but in a
half-hearted manner. It should have released him much earlier before having to
succumb to pressure from Beijing. Contrast this with when Koizumi was in power.
As prime minister, Koizumi was hawkish enough to provoke fierce protests from
Japan's neighbors, particularly China, by regularly visiting the controversial
Yasukuni Shrine memorializing the war dead (including Class A war criminals
such as Hideki Tojo), but he also was well aware of how severely Sino-Japanese
relations would deteriorate further without the forced repatriation of seven
Japan's second mistake was in not immediately releasing the video of when the
Japan Coast Guard patrol arrested the captain. Although little known among
domestic and foreign observers, in June 2008 Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels
and a Taiwanese leisure fishing boat collided with each other near the Senkaku
Islands. At first, the coast guard claimed the Taiwanese boat bumped into the
Japanese patrol ship. Later, because one Taiwanese fisherman aboard happened to
shoot the scene in which the coast guard could be seen bumping the other
vessel, the Japanese government was forced to pay about NT$10 million
(US$311,000) as compensation.
From the start of the more recent incident, Japan should have released the
video in order to justify its own claim as soon as possible, not least before
four employees of a Japanese construction company, Fujita Corp, were held in
China on September 20 for allegedly entering a military zone without permission
and videotaping facilities there. The Japanese government is now reluctant to
release the Japan Coast Guard's video as this could whip up anti-Japanese
feeling in China at a time that one Fujita employee is still being held in
The story is far from over
Although Chinese media has raved about the Chinese diplomatic victory, the
story is far from over. Other nations such as the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Korea as well as the United States and European
nations are beginning to voice concerns about the perceived Chinese "threat" -
vehemently denied by Beijing. By looking at Beijing's strong-handed diplomacy
against Tokyo, they have become very cautious about China's recent aggressive
diplomacy and military activities to expand its ocean interests at a time when
the economic powerhouse already exceeds Japan as the world's second-largest
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all claim
sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, yet another
potential tinder box in the region. South Korea is also conscious of Beijing's
intentional display of its diplomatic and economic power. JoongAng Ilbo, one of
South Korea's major newspaper wrote on September 25:
China has been
eyeing the territorial right over Leo Island in the Yellow Sea, which South
Korea claims is its territory, and the Exclusive Economic Zone could become the
next hot potato. The Leo Island dispute and the economic zone are the reasons
why Korea cannot sit back and watch the discord between China and Japan
We need to have firm determination to proudly defend Korea's national
interests, using all possible and available means and measures.
The South China Morning Post has also pointed out that China is taking a harder
stance than before. ''First there was Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, and then the
South China Sea. Now the Diaoyu Islands have become the latest addition to
China's 'core interests' when it comes to territorial integrity,'' the Hong
Kong newspaper reported on October 2.
Western companies are beginning to dislike the ''China Risk'', as Beijing can
easily block the export of rare earth minerals that industries throughout the
world need, leading companies to suffer since China accounts for more than 90%
of the global production of such minerals.
Chinese characters also show the potential for stability and instability that
has persisted in Asia historically. In Chinese characters commonly used in East
Asia, China means "central nation" or "middle kingdom". The characters imply
that the Chinese empire is the center of the world and that other nations are
tributary states. That situation for neighboring states was long true until the
middle of the 19th century, when the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of
China, suffered under foreign aggression and occupation.
From the standpoint of China, the late 19th and 20th centuries were exceptional
times, with what Chinese call "small Japan” beating and invading the middle
kingdom and reigning as the No 1 nation in the region. The 21st century may
well be high time for China to recover ''lost territories''.
Japan, meanwhile, experienced great changes during and after the Meiji
Restoration in 1868, when the emperor proclaimed a cultural awakening to "catch
up" with Western nations. Two victories against China in the Japanese-Sino War,
1894-1895, and against Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, 1905, made Japan a
world power. The main character on the Asian stage thus changed rapidly in the
early 21th century.
In a sense, Asia is in the process of normalization, with China coming back as
the Asian hegemon after a century and a half. But at the same time, the world
is in a process of "abnormalization", with the global economy's center of
gravity shifting from the West to the East, led by China's rising economic and
corresponding political power.
The world needs to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder among the
international community, not to become a big nation that bullies neighboring
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist.
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