Tuesday, August 16, 2011

China-Japan spat rattles nerves

China-Japan Spat Rattles Nerves in Asia, US

(Sept. 28) -- Relations between the world's No. 2 and No. 3 economies are in tatters even after Japan released the captain of a Chinese fishing boat four days ago.

Commentators from Japan, China and the West had sharply different takes of who was to blame, and who had emerged from the feud the "winner."

But one common theme was alarm over how a minor dispute had blown up into a major showdown, and surprise at the unusually shrill rhetoric and harsh, unilateral sanctions from China's side.

Zhan Qixiong, center, the 41-year-old Chinese captain of a Chinese fishing boat, is led by Japan Coast Guard personnel to disembark from a coast guard boat at a port on Ishigaki island, southwestern Japan.

Meanwhile, tensions around the disputed islands where the Chinese captain's boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels showed few signs of easing. Taiwan and Hong Kong media reported that China had begun regular, armed patrols near the islets for the first time, and that Japan had already lodged a formal protest.

On Friday, in line with China's increasingly strident demands, Japan released the Chinese fishing captain, Zhan Qixiong, whom it had accused of ramming two Japanese coast guard vessels. But China's reaction sparked another round of verbal sparring.

Beijing on Saturday demanded an apology and compensation from Japan. Japan quickly rejected that, and in turn said it would seek compensation for the damage to its two patrol boats, saying "the ball is now in China's court," according to The Associated Press.

Japanese media reported a domestic firestorm of protest against Tokyo's decision to release the captain, with harsh criticism coming from both opposition and ruling party members of parliament, the Asahi Shimbun reported. One outspoken Japanese nationalist, Shintaro Ishihara, slammed China for tactics he compared to "what yakuza mobsters do," according to Agence France-Presse.

Chinese commentators in state-backed publications directed their harshest criticism not at Japan, but at the U.S.

"The Diaoyu Islands incident could be seen as a direct result of the recent series of Sino-US confrontations, from US-South Korea joint military drills to the US challenging China's core interests in South China Sea," wrote Ni Lexiong from the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law in a commentary for Global Times.

"The background to the incident is that the US has been provoking China and taking advantage of conflicts between China and its neighbors to contain China recently," he wrote. Other Chinese commentators made similar points critical of the U.S. (see here and here.)

Western commentators tended to express alarm at the severity of China's response, particularly its apparent willingness to use its growing economic clout for political ends.

Last week, traders in the rare earth minerals industry reported that China had halted critical rare earth mineral exports to Japan; the Chinese government denied any official embargo. China accounts for 93 percent of rare earth elements used in key military applications like missiles, hybrid automobiles and wind turbines, according to The New York Times.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus, told USA Today that China had "overplayed its hand."

"It's a revealing moment, and the rest of Asia is looking on and saying 'uh-oh,'" Kingston told the newspaper. "[Beijing's] 'soft-power diplomacy' -- that a rising China is not a threatening China -- has all gone up in smoke."

The Economist made a similar point, saying, "the ferocity of the Chinese response has harmed China ultimately, by undermining confidence in China as a responsible stakeholder in the region."

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper on Monday quoted Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming again denying that China had placed an official embargo on rare earth minerals to Japan, but adding that the government wouldn't interfere with the behavior of Chinese companies, suggesting they may have acted on their own to impose a freeze.

The daily also reported that beginning this week, China would begin regular armed patrols near the disputed islets to protect its fishermen.

On Tuesday, Taiwan's China Times reported that on Sept. 24, the Japanese coast guard encountered two armed Chinese fisheries vessels in waters just off the disputed islets, called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyu by China. Japan lodged a formal protest against the incursion near what it sees as its territorial waters, the Times reported.

Japan, China and Taiwan all claim the tiny islets as their own, allowing them to in turn make claims on energy and fishing resources in surrounding waters.

Sam Bateman, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' maritime security program in Singapore, said in a phone interview that one way forward would be to side-step the territorial dispute by establishing joint zones for fishing and energy.

Similar zones have been established by Australia and East Timor, as well as China and Vietnam, he said, and have helped defuse harmful territorial spats.

"Ideally you could establish a joint fisheries zone and joint hydrocarbon zone, in the vicinity of the Senkakus, and set aside the sovereignty dispute," Bateman said.

"The sovereignty dispute over tiny specks of land blows things up disproportionately, and you get this rabid nationalism that springs up and distorts the situation."

See a creative depiction of the China-Japan dispute from Taiwan's Next Media Animation below:

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