Talking Point

Gunship diplomacy?

Tensions between China and Japan are escalating in dispute over islands

Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands and lays claim to them

History teaches us that conflicts can grow out of the most obscure dispute. Take the case of Don Pacifico, whose house was ransacked by a Greek mob as police looked on. When he failed to get compensation from the Athens authorities, he appealed to the British government for redress (somewhat strange, as Don was the Portuguese consul to Greece).

But the year was 1850, and Britain’s foreign secretary Lord Palmerston took the view that since Pacifico was born in Gibraltar, he was a British subject. Thus his interests should be protected.

When diplomatic overtures failed, Palmerston sent in the Royal Navy. The port of Piraeus was blockaded. Two months later, the Greek government capitulated and paid Pacifico compensation.

When asked why had taken this course, Palmerston puffed out his chest and said it was a matter of principle: British subjects must be protected wherever they are in the world.

Over in the present day East China Sea, two states are once again in dispute over an individual. This time he’s a Chinese fisherman, who’s been detained by the Japanese.

And although only a war of words at the moment, neither China or Japan show any sign of conceding on what both regard as key matters of principle. The hope is that they won’t follow the Palmerstonian example and call upon their navies for a show of force…

Why the fracas over a fisherman?

Last Tuesday, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessels. The boat was then seized along with the 14 man crew, under captain Zhan Qixong.

This provoked an immediate response from the Chinese foreign ministry, with a spokeswoman warning that China was “firmly opposed to any kind of investigation by the Japanese side on the illegally detained Chinese trawler.”

For good measure she added that Japan’s behaviour was “illegal, invalid and futile” and stressed that the “unconditional release of the detained Chinese citizens was the only way to settle the dispute.”

The crew have since been returned to China, but Captain Zhan has thus far remained in Japanese custody. Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Sengoku Yoshito, has said that the case will be investigated by prosecutors in accordance with Japanese law. The Nikkei newspaper reports that the captain is accused of “unlawfully fishing in Japanese territorial waters”, as well as suspected of deliberately ramming his ship – the Minjinyu 5179 – into one of the Japanese patrol boats.

The word ‘territorial’ is the crux of the dispute. The collision happened near a group of eight uninhabited islands collectively called the Daioyu (by the Chinese) and the Senkaku (by the Japanese). Both countries claim sovereignty over the rocky outcrops, although Japan has administered the shoal since 1972.

What’s behind the rising tension?

WiC has reported before on China’s rising naval ambitions (see issue 62). Japan has been watching too, and recently Tokyo has held talks with the US to hold naval exercises in waters around the disputed islands – as a symbolic show of its claim.

Japanese media has also reported that the government is considering deploying ‘self-defence’ troops on the islands – a move that would mark the first time that they’ve been militarised since the Second World War.

Into this storm sailed Captain Zhan. His boat may not have constituted a naval maneouvre in the formal sense but his act – wittingly or not – did represent China pressing its own claim to sovereignty. As one of his crew put it: ““For generations, we have fished in those waters and so how could they seize us?”

That’s why things have escalated so quickly. At midnight on Saturday, the Japanese ambassador was called to a meeting with Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who demanded the release of captain and crew (he secured the latter, not the former).

In a further show of anger, China has postponed bilateral talks that were due to take place later this month on joint gas field development in the East China Sea.

The postponement demonstrates that Beijing is willing to flex its economic muscles. Meanwhile China’s nationalistic netizens have been flooding chatrooms with calls for a much more belligerent approach.

Take this example on rednet.cn from a user who goes by the name Danxin: “China’s navy should go to the Diaoyu Islands to maintain sovereignty and show an equal reaction to Japan. Half a century ago the Japanese invaded China and that was due to our blind concessions. China needs peace, but not at the expense of ceding our interests. The Qing government [in the nineteenth century] ceded much to foreigners in exchange for peace. But what did that get us: more humiliation. The lessons of history should not be forgotten.”

In fact, the spread of similar remarks – many calling for naval intervention – has worried the Chinese government. Last Friday, it began blocking websites that voiced the most rabid demands for a belligerent response.

Beijing remains silent on the military option, but it did up the diplomatic ante on Wednesday by cancelling a visit to Tokyo by delegates of its National People’s Congress. In the words of the foreign ministry: “Japan provoked this and should take all responsibility.”

The South China Morning Post quoted experts who reckoned this stand-off won’t end soon.

A worrying deterioration…

It is notable how quickly ties have soured. After all, it was only last year that Japan’s former prime minister Hatoyama Yukio was winning friends in Beijing with his more pro-Chinese attitude. Hatoyama apologised for Japanese aggression during World War Two. He even went so far as to suggest that China and Japan form an EU-style East Asian Community with South Korea (see WiC34).

A return to a more fractious state of affairs is probably closer to the norm, given the pair’s relationship has been acrimonious for nearly 700 years (see WiC14). In particular, the average Chinese feels a level of animosity for his Japanese neighbours that can be hard for the residents of Washington, London and Berlin to fully comprehend.

Netizens, again, are a good indicator. Take Gen Zhai, who on Tiexue.net proposed boycotting the purchase of Japan’s goods. Most telling of all was his remark: “Of course, I’m not saying we must start a war against Japan immediately.”

The implication? For nationalistic Chinese like Gen Zhai the prospect of war with Tokyo is a matter less of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

The economic weapon…

Many Chinese are buoyed by what they detect as a shift in the balance of power. China’s GDP recently surpassed Japan’s, making it the world’s second biggest economy. That gives it much more clout, and – should it happen – a business boycott would hurt a lot of Japanese firms.

A case in point is Nissan. So important has the Chinese market become for the carmaker that last week it launched a dedicated China brand named Venucia, to sell vehicles in second and third tier cities.

Nissan’s not unique – many Japanese companies are premising their growth prospects on selling to China.

And in Japan itself a boycott by Chinese tourists could also prove punitive. The country’s tourist office expects 1.8 million Chinese to visit this year, up from 1 million last year. That’s partly thanks to a visa relaxation in July that allows Chinese with heavy-duty credit cards to apply for individual visits. The same body reckons that Chinese tourists spend roughly three times as much in Japanese shops as Americans.

All of which points to a disturbing truth for Tokyo. It may want to claim sovereignty over the islands, but its economy could pay a price for unfriendly relations with China.

Another black-eye…

Captain Zhan wasn’t the only symbol of strained Sino-Japanese ties this month. In a coincidental blow, last Thursday saw the death of Xing Xing, a 14 year-old panda gifted to Kobe zoo in 2002. The panda died on the operating table, under anaesthetic. Cue those fiery netizens again: “The panda China sent was a symbol of friendship. I prefer to see this as a divine hint: there can be no friendship between China and Japan,” wrote a netizen on Sina.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.