From bad to worse?
Literally minutes after WiC was published last Friday, Japan released Zhan Qixong the trawler captain, whose detention over the past weeks had erupted into a major Sino-Japanese diplomatic incident. Crisis over? Not so, thought the local media. “Row with Japan continues,” stated the China Daily, which reported that “A foreign policy white paper, released on Sunday, underlined China’s determination to safeguard its territory as the row between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands continued to escalate.”
“Tensions between Japan and China continued to simmer even after Japan bowed to Beijing’s demands to release a detained Chinese fishing-boat captain,” commented the Wall Street Journal. It suggested “the episode could mark the start of a new period of friction between the Asian neighbours, with unpredictable consequences for regional stability.” The Japanese media panned the decision to release Zhan, saying the rule of law had been undermined. Prosecutors had cited diplomatic and economic reasons for the release.
Who won and who should apologise?
Only hours after Captain Zhan Qixiong was released, China was demanding Japan formally apologise for his “illegal detention” and even pay compensation. Captain Zhan told China Central Television he was eager to return for more fishing in the East China Sea, further inflaming nationalist sentiment. “The damage to the good momentum of China-Japan relations has once again exposed Japan’s serious misunderstandings—and ignominious plots—in dealing with China,” said a commentary in the People’s Daily, the voice of the Communist Party.
Nikkei’s verdict was clear-cut: “Japan has been deemed overwhelmingly the loser in the strange game of chicken that’s been escalating between Beijing and Tokyo over the past week.”
Facing a political backlash, Prime Minister Kan Naoto resolutely refused China’s demand to apologise. “Senkaku is a Japanese territory. From that point of view, apology or compensation is unthinkable,” said Kan, using the Japanese term for the Diaoyus. Instead he requested compensation from China for the damage done to Japan’s Coast Guard ships, which Zhan was accused of ramming.
The Global Times quoted Peng Guangqian, a PLA major general who sees a darker American influence at work. Peng suspects a strategy to “contain China” and says the US is encouraging Japan to be assertive over the disputed territories.
Talk of a coming conflict inflamed websites. Many cited a speech purportedly by a Chinese executive who had worked in Japan which predicted war will break out between 2015 and 2020. The logic (accepted uncritically by many netizens) is that during that timeframe, Taiwan will reunify with the mainland and that the Chinese navy will then be in a position to block the Strait of Taiwan – threatening Tokyo’s oil deliveries.
Nikkei saw evidence of an economic war, with China withholding its exports of rare earth metals, of which it holds a near monopoly. “China Using Rare Earths As Diplomatic Weapon,” was the headline.
More broadly, there were fears about the commercial impact. The Financial Times quoted Japanese economy minister Kaieda Banri as saying that the worsening of relations would have “an extremely big impact” on the economy.
What next? NHK, the public broadcaster, interviewed Ishihara Nobuteru, secretary-general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, who asked: what should the Coast Guard do if more Chinese fishermen turn up?
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