The recent maritime row between Japan and China over the seizure of a Chinese fishing boat captain continues to cast a pall over bilateral relations. While Tokyo is facing criticism for blinking in the face of Chinese pressure, Beijing is being criticized by Western and Japanese media as being aggressive in its efforts to expand its control of adjacent maritime areas. Although the incident has largely been framed as a victory for China and a loss for Japan, Beijing has little to celebrate.
The row began on Sept 8 when the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler operating in Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands (Daioyutai in Chinese) on the suspicion that he obstructed the official duties of the JCG. According to the JCG, the fishing trawler, captained by Zhan Qixiong, rammed two of their vessels after being ordered to stop.
While Japanese authorities pursued the matter through their domestic legal system, Beijing reacted in increasingly erratic terms. In addition to suspending bilateral cabinet-level exchanges and making repeated calls on Japan’s ambassador to China, including an unceremonious midnight call, Beijing postponed talks with Tokyo on the signing of a 2008 treaty for the joint development of gas fields in the area.
In what was viewed as unnecessary escalation, Beijing followed with actions in areas unrelated to the incident. This included the suspension of a visit by 1,000 Japanese university students to the Shanghai Expo, the postponement of a Japanese pop concert in Shanghai, the urging of domestic travel agencies to exercise restraint in arranging tours to Japan, the halting of shipments of rare-earth materials to Japan, and the targeting of goods bound for export to and import from Japan with thorough customs inspections that add costly delays to shipments.
Then, nearly three weeks after Zhan’s seizure, Wen Jiabao warned of taking further retaliatory measures if Zhan was not released, which was subsequently followed by the arrest of four Japanese nationals in Hebei Province whom Beijing accused of illegally entering a defense zone and videotaping military targets. Shortly after their arrest, the Naha District Public Prosecutors Office released Zhan with a suspended indictment on Sept 24.
While it is difficult for Japan to avoid the image of buckling under Chinese pressure, China has not attained a diplomatic victory worth celebrating. Beijing’s disagreement with Tokyo’s right to arrest Zhan and try him under Japanese domestic law is understandable given that recognizing Tokyo’s right would be de facto recognition of Japan’s sovereignty over the islands. However, the way Beijing chose to handle the matter will have long-lasting negative consequences for the image it is trying to promote.
China has long sought to shake off its "century of humiliation" and become an equal to other great powers. While the West has cried foul on Beijing’s two decades of double-digit defense spending increases and military modernization program, the Chinese leadership has worked hard to reassure its neighbors that these things were not to be feared. Yet, China’s actions vis-à-vis Japan negate these efforts and serve to reinforce the image of China as an aggressive rising power. Tying issues unrelated to the fishing trawler incident to punish Japan appear to be yet another instance of Beijing forcefully pursuing its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Yellow Sea, and the larger East China Sea.
Critics of China have used the incident to demonstrate that Beijing has malicious intentions in its rise. China refutes this. It does not matter which side is right. For a state that is hyper-sensitive to world opinion, China apparently fails to understand that its neighbors look to its actions and perceive it as a potential aggressor. Because regional states are increasingly concerned about China’s forceful diplomacy in dealing with its territorial disputes, Beijing’s behavior will never garner support in the region. Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, not only does it make countries increasingly wary to trust China’s motives behind military modernization, it unites China’s neighbors under a mutually shared interest to protect sovereignty. This, in turn, may serve to push the region closer to the U.S. as it does not lay claim to any territory in the region and prioritizes freedom of navigation.
Gone are the days of worrying about Japan reestablishing some postwar economic version of its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It has been replaced by fears that China may be seeking to establish regional dominance akin to the Chinese-centered imperial tribute system. China wants to reassure the region that its rise is peaceful. Yet, as long as Beijing employs tactics that others perceive as strong-armed to resolve territorial issues, it will always do harm to that aim. Beijing needs to be cognizant that short-term victories can create long-term damage.
The writer works at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.© Japan Today