Diaoyu dispute marks a win for Washington

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am

Following the release of Chinese trawler captain Zhan Qixiong, Beijing has continued to ratchet up pressure by demanding an apology and compensation from Tokyo over Zhan's 'unlawful' detention.

The Foreign Ministry made the demand twice on Saturday and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan yesterday firmly rejected the call.

This has led to some murmurs that Beijing is being insatiable after forcing Tokyo to stand down in the worst diplomatic row between the two countries in at least five years.

At first glance, Beijing is indeed the outright winner, judging by the glee of the nationalist sentiment at home and strong reaction from the Japanese media, which accused Tokyo of bowing to pressure from Beijing. But if one probes deeper and looks at the wider implications, Washington is a much bigger winner. With Washington's increasing engagement, Sino-Japan relations are getting more complex, particularly over disputed territorial claims, and so are China's relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours.

After Zhan's arrest on September 7, Beijing initiated a series of harsh diplomatic protests, summoned Japan's ambassador six times, suspended ministerial-level contacts, postponed talks on developing disputed undersea gas fields and cancelled joint cultural events.

In New York last week, Premier Wen Jiabao threatened further action if the captain was not immediately released.

'The Diaoyu Islands are sacred Chinese territory and if Japan clings obstinately to its mistake, China will take further actions. The Japanese side shall bear all the ensuing severe consequences,' Wen said. He refused to meet the Japanese prime minister on the sidelines of the UN development conference.

Last Thursday the mainland authorities said they were investigating four Japanese nationals suspected of entering a military zone without authorisation and illegally filming military facilities.

This time, the mainland leadership has done a much better job at ratcheting up diplomatic pressure and rhetoric on the one hand while managing public opinion on the other to ensure nationalist sentiment does not get out of control.

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been only a few modest protests in major mainland cities, where the number of police far surpassed the number of protesters. The authorities also took steps to persuade university students to stay on campus.

This is in sharp contrast to the last major anti-Japan protests, which turned violent in 2005 when tens of thousands of students and other mainlanders took to the streets against Japanese textbooks seen as whitewashing Japanese war crimes and Tokyo's attempt to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member. This time, even some Japanese officials and media observed the street protests by the mainlanders were calm and small.

China's economy has already overtaken Japan's to become the world's second largest and, all in all, the incident has given Beijing a clear win as it tries to put markers on its core national interests.

But the victory was limited somewhat by overseas media reports portraying China's more assertive attitude and bolder territorial claims.

Indeed, Beijing merely secured the return of the captain whose trawler was fishing in 'China's sacred territory'.

Needless to say, the Japanese coastguard vessels are still patrolling around the Diaoyu Islands and Japanese officials have made it clear that they will arrest Chinese fishermen again if their boats sail close to the Diaoyus.

At the same time, Washington is scoring big, taking advantage of this opportunity and other recent developments to reassert itself in regional diplomacy and security. More interestingly, there are signs suggesting that Washington may have played a major part in securing the release of the captain.

Some Japanese media have noted that Tokyo caved in following a meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in New York on Thursday. During the meeting, Clinton reportedly urged dialogue to resolve the row quickly.

Washington reacted quickly to praise Japan's decision to release Zhan, saying the move 'will significantly reduce existing tension' in the region, according to US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

Crowley appeared to have confirmed previous speculation suggesting that Chinese officials had lobbied Washington to put more pressure on Tokyo. He told reporters that US officials discussed the row in lower level contacts with Chinese officials in New York.

This came after Clinton announced in July that the US wanted to play a role of mediator and foster multilateral solutions to the dispute over the islands in the South China Sea claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.

The disputes were also high on the agenda in the summit between US President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders last week.

Of China's foreign relations, its relationship with the US is already the most important one.

The recent developments have shown China's relations with its neighbours, be they Japan or Southeast Asian countries, should increasingly be seen through the prism of that bilateral relationship.