Erratic course

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2010, 12:00am

Japan's behaviour in the crisis set off by the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coastguard vessels this month near disputed islands has been peculiar, to say the least.

For one thing, it had never in the past attempted to subject a Chinese national to Japanese court procedure. Doing so inevitably means prolonging a crisis and subjecting itself to Chinese pressure during that time.

And the Chinese were quick to pile on the pressure, diplomatic as well as economic. Still, Japan took a tough stand and would not budge. It said that the wheels of justice were in motion and the executive could not stop them.

Yet then, after Premier Wen Jiabao refused to see Japanese Premier Naoto Kan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Japan buckled. The captain was released.

Kan's office maintains that no pressure was put on the prosecutor's office in Okinawa. The deputy prosecutor, Toru Suzuki, held a press conference and explained: 'Considering the effects on the people of Japan and the future of Japan-China relations, we decided that it would not be appropriate to continue the investigation by maintaining the detention of the suspect any further.'

So, while the premier maintains that no political pressure was brought to bear, the prosecution itself says that it made the decision for political reasons. What's going on here?

When China demanded an apology and compensation, Japan again took a tough stance, not only rejecting the demands but asking China to compensate Japan for damage to the two coast guard vessels that it said were rammed by the fishing trawler.

However, even before this matter had been resolved, Japan suddenly assumed the role of a supplicant, saying that Kan plans to go to Brussels next week for the Asia-Europe Meeting and hopes Wen would meet him this time.

Japan, it seems, does not have a consistent China policy. With revolving prime ministers - six in the past five years - and with a new ruling party, there has not been time to develop one.

It would be better for Kan not to prostrate himself before China while the current crisis remains unresolved. Doing so creates the impression that Japan has been wrong from day one.

Of course, if that is now Japan's considered position, then it should accept China's demand and apologise. But if Japan still feels that it was in the right, then its prime minister should allow the situation to cool before gradually rebuilding the relationship with China. Before hurriedly seeking an audience with Wen, Kan would be better off taking stock of the situation and deciding what policies Japan should formulate to deal with China.

Japan should study the events of the past three weeks to see what lessons they hold. For one thing, it should be clear that, despite what China has said in the past about separating politics and economics, Beijing is prepared to use its economic clout to achieve political purposes.

The Global Times newspaper, for example, said that China needs to identify Japan's Achilles' heel and inflict pain that 'has to be piercing'.

'Japanese companies,' it said, 'have to be aware of the loss of business involved; Japanese citizens will feel the burden due to the downturn in the economy.'

Of course, if Kan's own position as premier is insecure and Japan continues to have a series of weak leaders, then Japan has little hope of being able to deal with China on the basis of equality.

In the meantime, questions remain regarding what really happened with the fishing trawler and the coastguard vessels.

Japan no doubt has videos of these incidents. Now that the decision has been made not to prosecute, such videos and all other evidence gathered by the prosecutors' office should be made public so that the world at large can know what really happened.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator