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China’s pyrrhic victory

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By Jeffrey Hornung

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

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

11 Comments
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China is in a land-grab mode, not only with respect to these islands but with all countries bordering China. Commentaries like the INSIPID piece above - and tiptoe around the REAL threat of China's IMPERIALISM coupled with their immense military capacity.

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Semper-fi I suggest you read Chalmer Johnson's latest book "Dismantling the Empire" or you can Google just what I wrote. Our days are numbered...............

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"Commentaries like the INSIPID piece above "

haha. I would call it pussy-footed. It is not wrong, just amazingly weak and (yawn) polite.

TheMarion. Great to hear that Chalmers J. has a new book. What do you think? Were all his other books right? Why would this one be right? You know, if you put all of the "revisionist" books in a big basket, you would see that they generally predict doom and gloom for somebody, and in very short order. In my experience, the opposite is mostly true. But that truth would not sell as many books, you see.

Japan is ill-equipped to fight resource wars, and the US is losing hegemony fast. Everyone is going to have to adapt to that and consider what resources are actually worth. Generally not much, in my opinion. For people who see swagger as power and geopolitics as a football game, these will be interesting times, but Japan is playing a different game and has different resources.

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OK. I read up on the CJ book. Um. So what? This current has been moving strongly since the mid 80s, but then it was called DECLINISM and was underpinned with hegemonic stability theory. Even this term OVERSTRETCH was very popular in the literature 25 years ago. I suppose the message is good and any whack on the military industrial complex gets a thumbs up from me. But the criticisms of declinism are as strong now as they ever were.

It seems separated from the issue at hand. I guess your point is that the world cannot rely on the US to play policeman? Well, I see a quid pro quo, as one could have seen in 1985, that the world supports the US deficits so that the US can keep the party rolling for the rest of us. That has not changed and probably won't. The costs are too great.

Or is your point that Japan needs to stick up for itself? Well oddly enough, that has been a point for the last 25 years too. Japan HAS toed the US line for the last 25 years, and if it is not going to get some payback for that, then the US peace experiment in Japan will probably have to be left behind as Japan is forced to become grabby and prickly like everyone else.

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"Although the incident has largely been framed as a victory for China and a loss for Japan"

it hasn't in the west

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I think very few people actually understood or cared what happened. Too busy working for slave wages---in China and In the good ole USA. In one case, the profits go the elite, and in the other case, the money goes to the elite.

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Too busy working for slave wages---in China and In the good ole USA. In one case, the profits go the elite, and in the other case, the money goes to the elite.

Its just all so sad. Why go on?

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Remember, it's the west's fault for making China what it is today by investing in this one gigantic totalitarian sovereign state. Similar wage rates can be found throughout the democratic Pacific rim, but it had to be China.

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It's because the world has written off Japan, and China has the upper hand on a weakened Japan.

'Japan Goes From Dynamic to Disheartened'- NY Times, Oct 16, 2010

"Few nations in recent history have seen such a striking reversal of economic fortune as Japan. The original Asian success story, Japan rode one of the great speculative stock and property bubbles of all time in the 1980s to become the first Asian country to challenge the long dominance of the West.

But the bubbles popped in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Japan fell into a slow but relentless decline that neither enormous budget deficits nor a flood of easy money has reversed. For nearly a generation now, the nation has been trapped in low growth and a corrosive downward spiral of prices, known as deflation, in the process shriveling from an economic Godzilla to little more than an afterthought in the global economy.

China has so thoroughly eclipsed Japan that few American intellectuals seem to bother with Japan now, and once crowded Japanese-language classes at American universities have emptied. Even Clyde V. Prestowitz, a former Reagan administration trade negotiator whose writings in the 1980s about Japan’s threat to the United States once stirred alarm in Washington, said he was now studying Chinese. “I hardly go to Japan anymore,” Mr. Prestowitz said."

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I feel like having some kung pao chicken and mu shoo pork.

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International law is fairly clear on territorial disputes involving uninhabited islands: active presence and administration determine ownership, while vague prior historical claims do not. Because the islands are actively administered by Japan, an international court would rule them to be Japanese territory. China knows this, and that is why it has never launched a court case to claim the Senkaku islands (China knows it would lose). China may yell and scream all it wants to about it, but the only real way to make the Senkaku islands Chinese (or Taiwanese) territory would be through a straight-up military invasion. And if China tried that, well, I think the US 7th Fleet might beg to differ.

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