The Senkaku Islands incident and Japan-China relations

Author: Satoshi Amako, Waseda University

Since the Senkaku Islands ship collision incident, media sensationalism has raged, and Japan-China relations have been greatly shaken. In the middle of this upheaval, which involved the cancellation of various Japan-China related events, I went to Beijing on September 26 to participate in the Japan-China-Korea Symposium hosted by the Chinese East Asia Forum. The keynote speech strongly urged that ‘given the current difficulties, dialogue between Japan and China is necessary more than ever. Cutting off dialogue will not achieve anything’. Almost all of the 150 participants enthusiastically supported the idea. The worsening relation is saddening, and I sincerely hope improvements can be realized as also did many of the Chinese participants.

So, how should we interpret the recent sequence of events? After the incident occurred on September 7, the current situation was set in train by Japan’s rigid stance, arresting the Chinese sea captain and extending his period of detention. On the Chinese side, economic transactions and large scale tourist group trips bound for Japan were quickly cancelled, and additional harsh action also appeared to be in the offing. Japan conceded releasing the ship’s captain, and still China didn’t yield, demanding an apology and financial compensation, and detaining four Fujita Corporation employees. However, before long embargoed Japan bound rare earth exports resumed, and three, and then eventually the four, Fujita employees were released.

Let’s examine these events carefully.

The first problem is whether this incident was accidental or intentional. Foreign Minister Maehara, having seen the video evidence, described it as ‘clearly a ramming’, asserting that it was intentional. China on the other hand claims the incident was accidental as the collision happened while the fishing boat was attempting to escape from being encircled by patrol boats. Putting all this together, I see it as an intentionally planned action by the Chinese side. The main reasons for this are: (1) the large gathering of Chinese fishing boats in the area; (2) the recent assertive actions by China in the South China Sea regarding Chinese territorial claims and the expansion of maritime interests; (3) the Chinese authorities’ consecutive stubborn actions leaving no scope for negotiation in the immediate aftermath; and (4) Japan’s willingness to publicly release the video, demonstrating a positive approach.

The second problem is why the situation played out this way. There are number of interpretations. First, it was a sphere of influence battle between Japan and China over the East China Sea, including territory. If China were to recognize Japan’s at-first-stubborn-actions and its handling of the issue according to domestic law, China would be seen to be yielding to Japan. Accordingly China sought to make Japan, who at one stroke had taken a stubborn line, yield. Second, it was a manifestation of a rising China’s great-power-hegemonic-consciousness. China’s GDP has surpassed Japan, and its rapid economic growth rate of around 10 per cent continues. China’s military strength has already overtaken that of Japan, and China is now said to be engaged in the construction of aircraft carriers. With the intention of displaying its own strength, China came out with an equally stubborn stance. Third, it is a reflection of a domestic conflict in China between the ever increasingly powerful vested interests groups — particularly in this case surrounding the issue of marine resources development between those who assert independent development by China and those who give precedence to joint Sino-Japanese development. Finally, it is a reflection of a leadership struggle within the CCP. With the Central Committee of the CCP’s 5th Plenum in prospect and now under way, and heading toward the CCP National Congress in 2012, serious tension is said to be emerging within the ruling circle of top leaders — over broad personnel changes. Those opposed to the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are thought to have made use of Japan-China relations to shake the balance.

Perhaps all four interpretations, intricately intertwined, contributed to the overall situation.

If we focus on why the incident came about at this particular time, the third reason comes to the fore. The increasing influence of vested interest groups on policy decisions is also remarked upon by many Chinese. Since the incident broke out just as Japan and China were looking toward negotiations to conclude a treaty on gas fields in the East China Sea, we cannot rule out the possibility that opposing factions manoeuvred to thwart the negotiations. Following the release of the ship captain on the September 24, China high-handedly continued to demand an ‘apology and financial compensation’. So why did China turn about face resuming rare earth exports, releasing the Fujita employees, and moving to mend relations? The forces that opposed joint development of the resources were successful throwing that off course. Still, they feared that with Japan’s courting of international public opinion, excessive pressure or high-handedness would produce a lasting anti-China backlash. It seems a re-positioning took place within ruling circles in China on September 25. The issue for the future is how Japan and China will find a launching pad to mend their relations.

Satoshi Amako is Professor and formerly Dean of the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

This essay was translated by Ben Ascione, a graduate student at Waseda University.

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