The dangers of tit for tat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 September, 2010, 12:00am

While many Japanese feel Tokyo 'caved in' to Chinese pressure by releasing the trawler skipper at the centre of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, it is actually calculated diplomacy. Indeed, all of Japan's manoeuvres were intended to convey the impression that the islands are Japanese territory under domestic law.

It is useful to put this into context. In 2004, seven members of the China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands landed on Uotsuri, one of Diaoyu islands. Japan deported them after only two days of detention.

In contrast, the Chinese captain in the current case was detained for two weeks, and extensive references were made by Japan to domestic laws. On September 22, following Beijing's announcement that it would suspend high-level bilateral official exchanges, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said that the case was a legal matter, and Japan would try to convince China to understand how Japan's judicial and political system works.

An editorial in the Asahi newspaper on the same day said 'it makes perfect sense for Japan, a country of laws, to stick to its guns in calmly dealing with the issue in accordance with domestic law'.

This line of argument is reminiscent of a recent article by Beijing-based blogger Yoshikazu Kato, who writes regularly in a FT Chinese column. Kato said the fishing boat incident was a good opportunity for Chinese to learn about how the Japanese executive and judicial system operates. China needed to understand that the incident involved judicial as well as diplomatic issues, he said. Kato also praised the Chinese government for constraining extreme nationalists.

Kato's article was strongly refuted by Zhang Wen, a leading Chinese journalist and media commentator, who wondered how Japan could employ domestic laws when the sovereignty of the islands was in dispute. Furthermore, Zhang accused Kato of having a hidden agenda, of trying to use the Chinese government to clamp down on Chinese nationalism.

Aggressive as it might be to Chinese eyes, Japan's attitude could be interpreted as an ideational aspect of its statecraft. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. And as de facto owner of the islands, Japan's employment of domestic laws could further help its claim to legitimacy. It should be noted that authorities in Okinawa have not officially closed the Chinese captain's case.

In fact, Japan does not even acknowledge that there is a territorial dispute. Officially, Japan claims that the islands, formerly unoccupied, were discovered by Japan in 1885 and formally incorporated in 1895. After US administration between 1945 and 1972, the islands were transferred to Japan and have been administered by Japan since then. It was not until the late 1970s, with the prospects of petroleum discoveries, that China began to question Japan's claims.

What remains to be explained is the more aggressive Japanese behaviour compared with the 2004 detention case. The answer lies in more assertive Chinese actions.

In December 2008, two Chinese maritime survey ships entered the territorial waters of the islands, the first time Chinese government vessels had travelled so close. In April this year, a Chinese helicopter flying too close to a Japanese warship also stirred fear in Japan. A sense of antagonism is revealed in the Japanese public. The Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that 69 per cent of Japanese have an unfavourable view of China this year, up from 42 per cent in 2002.

Never in history have Japan and China emerged simultaneously as major economic and geopolitical actors. According to conventional wisdom, 'cold politics and hot economics' have prevented minor quarrels between China and Japan from escalating into major conflicts. But the current imbroglio, with talks suspended on joint exploration of gas fields in the East China Sea, has gone beyond the political realm and is affecting economic relations.

Japan's calculated approach and China's increased assertiveness are both to blame. But this game of proportional escalation, in the spirit of 'if they do something, we'll do something until they understand our determination', is a dangerous one. No one can know for sure what effects the accumulation of grievances over time would have on the prospects of peace. The history of how Anglo-German relations evolved from 'hot economics' at the turn of the 20th century into two horrific wars should provide ample food for thought.

Andy Yee is a Hong Kong-based writer and a former researcher for the political section of the European Union Delegation to China in Beijing. He blogs at Global Voices Online