Sino-Japan relations hit a crisis after Japan detained a Chinese skipper following a collision near the disputed Diaoyu Islands on September 7. Compared with differences in historical, economic or trade issues, the crisis arousing from the rocky, uninhabited islands is far more close to both countries’ core interests. There are difference voices in Japan over Japanese PM’s visit to the Yasuhuni war shrine, we’d say, they are unified as one voice when coming to territorial deputes.
On the question of sovereignty, like the claims of Tibet and Taiwan, China has no room for maneuver too. The dispute over Diaoyu Islands, suddenly surfaced in full view, would bring a long-term effect to the Sino-Japan relations.
The Diaoyu Islands and adjacent islets have been Chinese territories since ancient times. In 70s last century, the United States handed over the Diaoyu Islands, together with Okinawa, occupied since the World War II to Japan, despite protest from China. During the Kakuei Tanaka and Masayoshi Ohira eras, the Japanese government agreed with China to set aside the disputes over Diaoyu Islands.
However, Japan’s handling of the collision using its domestic law for the first time in the disputed areas, is obviously a substantial step taken by the Japanese government to assert sovereignty over the contended islands, and a backward move for the basic understandings between the two countries since establishing diplomatic relations as well.
What’s behind the row is the escalating contention of the sovereignty of the whole East China Sea and its large oil and gas reserves, signaling Japan’s hard-line stance towards China.
The Japanese government’s new attitude can be explained from multiple perspectives.
One is that the new defense minister Toshimi Kitazawa and foreign minister Seiji Maehara – both are China-bashers—stirred up territorial disputes to deflect domestic confusion and discontents over political instability, and seek support from emotional voters.
Secondly, there is the issue of abundant resources laying around the waters of Diaoyu Islands, which, unlike the Ryukyu Islands, are not linked with Japan’s continent. By obtaining the islands, the resource-poor island nation would not only get the rich underwater oil and gas reserves, but also contain China by further blocking its access to the sea militarily.
Deeper under the cover, however, are Japan’s concerns over China’s rapid rise recently. Japan has been the biggest power in Asia for the past one hundred years, but was eclipsed recently by China, whose economic growth has been expanding like a racing car – in Formula one. There is a considerable portion of Japan’s politicians who see China as a major threat on its way to world-class power, in spite of the government’s statement that China’s development poses chances, not threat to Japan.
What’s more, the Japanese views itself, at a deep layer, as a more “excellent” nationality than the Chinese. Any possibilities that would put the Japanese fate under China’s hands would hurt much; therefore, “containing China by uniting the United States” has been one of its basic strategies in the 21 century.
At the same time, China’s “Good-Neighbor policy”, as well as its approaches to “lay controversy aside and achieving mutual development” also gave an opportunity to Japan. The Japanese are assured that even an affront would not infuriate China to break pledges of “peaceful rise” to its adjacent countries, thus leaving it no choices but returning to the table.
From a geopolitical perspective, the United States, Japan’s biggest alliance is hampering China by strengthening its presence around China—ranging from India, Japan and Taiwan. Echoing the United States, the Japanese new foreign and defensive ministers are bold enough to counter China.
It worked, in fact, posing a dilemma for the Chinese government. China used to play down disputes with Japan, even when regarding territorial issues. This time, however, being cornered, the Chinese government took a hard-line stance back at Japan. It had summoned the Japanese ambassador to China for six times during the boat row at such a short time. During the same time, outcries from the public, if not restrained by the government, would outweigh the anti-Japanese wave in 2005.
However, China has only a few cards to play.
Countermeasures such as delaying talks on oil developing in the China East Sea and resuming exploration and production would be taken, given Japan’s unilateral action. At the same time, the Chinese government should consider deploying troops in the islands, even claiming sovereignty via military drills.
Of course, military confrontation should not be the major paradigm due to its risks of slipping into war; however, a carrot-and-stick approach is indispensable.
Abolishing the Fishery Agreement adopted in 1997 between the two sides, for example, would be another response to Japan’s provoke. According to the agreement, Chinese fishing boats are not allowed to enter a contiguous zone – a 12-nautical-mile strip of water, which is equivalent to giving up claims to the islands; meanwhile, it also stipulates that any violations of fishing boats, would be judged under their own authorities.
The disputes on Diaoyu Islands are not solved after leaving it in the air for years. It is better to make it open on the negotiating table, rather than keep it this way, clashing with Japan occasionally. It is not only a matter concerning with sovereignty, but also a diplomatic issue. To open talks on the issue will be the best choice for both countries.
Talks, meanwhile, should be backed by national strengths. It is time for China to boost spending for armaments and develop marine and air forces.
A set of diplomatic strategy is also in urgent need to reflect China’s changing interests calls, otherwise, an hesitate and amphibolous attitude would deliver contradictory information to the outside, which would not help protect China’s own interest.
Lack of a grand strategy to guide diplomatic polices, our government can only response to individual event, while incapable of taking control by connecting the relations between changing international environment and international affairs.（the author is Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Macau）