Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chinese Captain to Return Home

Chinese fishing boat captain Zhan Qixiong will be released to go home, announced Japanese prosecutors, citing consideration of the dispute between China and Japan on diplomatic level.

This is a rebuttal of the argument of the Japanese government that the original decision to detain the captain was based on Japan's domestic law with the decision had been made by local prosecutors. Japanese government claimed they could do nothing despite repeatedly protest from Chinese officials. It is an admission of guilt that politics does play the leading role in the ending of the incident. At the same time, it is an admission of guilt that politics could have played an equally important role in the motivation at the beginning.

There might be under the table bargaining and trading that we don't know. From the face value, it's hard to tell which side scores higher in the proactive incident which almost triggered a war which involves not only China and Japan, but also Taiwan and the US. According to the US/Japan Security Treaty, the US is obliged to step in on any land 'administered' by Japan. Putting aside all the disputes with the mainland China, Taiwan's President sent 11 armed coast guard ships to a standoff with Japanese official ships to protest the detaining of Chinese captain. The two sides, although armed with live ammo, exchanged attacks with means of flash lights and loud speakers. Taiwan claimed the Islands belong to Republic of China, the official title of Taiwan. The mainland claimed sovereign of the Islands, while placing it under the Taiwan Province according to traditional boundaries. In this sense, the two China found a common ground to fence off Japan's aggression.

Both China and Japan had hoped to let the issue settle down in time. Japan has the actual control of the island, and hope when time goes by, the rest of the world, including China and Taiwan, will get used to the reality that it is under Japan's actual control. China, on the other end, do not want to challenge Japan's superior military power in the water and air and wish the current dispute could be prolonged to the moment when its influence catch up with the economics growth.

The incident, in a way, broke the wishes from both sides. Both Japan and China will have to take a serious look at Diaoyu Islands and prepare for the next conflict which could happen at any time.

There is no doubt, though, that Japanese authorities provoked the incident. Chinese fishing boats have been fishing in the water for hundreds of years, especially in most recent years, when its near shore resources mostly exhausted by over fishing. It is believed that there was a common understanding between the two sides that China does not publicly challenge Japan's control of the Islands, but Japan allow China's fishing boats to fish in the area. At any given time, it is said around 300 Chinese fishing boats would be found in the area. Why suddenly Japanese government made a big deal of it, by chasing after a small fishing boat?

The current Japanese government started with an agenda to outgrow the US occupancy and strengthen ties with China. That plot didn't work well, and had already cost one Premier's job. The second Premier from the same Party, assumed much of the fame and debt from his predecessor, and was facing a challenge from a competitor in a primary election on September 14. By demonstrating a strong face towards China, the Premier scored a solid win, much in the similar way in the US when politicians always show strong face towards potential threats, but often adopt a more pragmatic approach after taking office. In this sense, Premier Naoto Kan won.

A New York Times article on the Islands:
Look Out for the Diaoyu Islands

Tensions have erupted over some barren rocks in the Pacific that you may never have heard of, but stay tuned – this is a boundary dispute that could get ugly and some day have far-reaching consequences for China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

The islands in question are called the Senkaku chain by Japan, the Diaoyu islands by China, and the Diaoyutai by Taiwan. All three claim the islands, which are really just five islets and three barren rocks northeast of Taiwan, 200 miles off the Chinese coast. The latest confrontation occurred when a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese naval vessels trying to intercept it near the islands. The Japanese detained the Chinese captain for questioning and the two countries have been exchanging indignant protests.

The reason to worry is that nationalists in both China and Taiwan see the islands as unquestionably theirs and think that their government has been weak in asserting this authority. So far, wiser heads have generally prevailed on each side, but at some point a weakened Chinese leader might try to gain legitimacy with the public by pushing the issue and recovering the islands. It would be a dangerous game and would have a disastrous impact on China-Japan relations, but if successful it would raise the popularity of the Chinese government and would also be a way of putting pressure on Taiwan.

The other problem is that, technically, the U.S. would be obliged to bail Japan out if there were a fight over the Senkakus. The U.S. doesn’t take a position on who owns the islands, but the Japan-U.S. security treaty specifies that the U.S. will help defend areas that Japan administers. And in 1972, when the U.S. handed Okinawa back to Japan, it agreed that Japan should administer the Senkakus. So we’re in the absurd position of being committed to help Japan fight a war over islands, even though we don’t agree that they are necessarily Japanese.

In reality, of course, there is zero chance that the U.S. will honor its treaty obligation over a few barren rocks. We’re not going to risk a nuclear confrontation with China over some islands that may well be China’s. But if we don’t help, our security relationship with Japan will be stretched to the breaking point.

So which country has a better claim to the islands? My feeling is that it’s China, although the answer isn’t clearcut. Chinese navigational records show the islands as Chinese for many centuries, and a 1783 Japanese map shows them as Chinese as well. Japan purported to “discover” the islands only in 1884 and annexed them only in 1895 when it also grabbed Taiwan. (You can also make a case that they are terra nullis, belonging to no nation.)

The best approach would be for China and Japan to agree to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice, but realistically that won’t happen. And since some believe that the area is rich with oil and gas reserves, the claims from each side have become more insistent.

As Chinese nationalism grows, as China’s navy and ability to project power in the ocean gains, we could see some military jostling over the islands. You read it here first.

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