The conflict caused by the Japanese detention of a Chinese fishing boat and its crew in waters off the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) is intensifying. Japan has extended the captain’s detention, setting off demonstrations in many Chinese cities and causing Beijing to express anger and rebuke the Japanese ambassador.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has suspended ministerial-level and higher exchanges, ended bilateral talks on navigation rights and is considering restricting the number of tourists traveling to Japan.
There was news that September 13 the Chinese vessel sent to retrieve the detained fishing boat was surrounded by seven Japanese navy vessels, implying that the situation once could explode at any moment.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), on a visit to the US, increased tensions by saying that Beijing would take further action if Japan refused to listen and the Japanese would bear responsibility for any consequences. Although Wen said his remarks were aimed at Japan, they were also intended for US ears.
Not long ago, the US and Japan decided to hold a joint drill off Okinawa later this year, but the US has now been pushed away from cooperation with Japan into a more neutral position. A US State Department spokesperson said recently that the Diaoyutai dispute was mainly a bilateral issue to be resolved by China and Japan, and that the US was hoping they would find a peaceful solution.
In the past, Taiwanese and Chinese fishing boats operating near the Diaoyutais and activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong attempting to assert sovereignty over the islands would simply be escorted away from the area by Japan. This would then be followed by a strong protest from Beijing or Taipei and that would be the end of it.
This time, however, Japan has charged the boat captain with obstructing public affairs, thus declaring its sovereignty over the islands through its court system. The Diaoyutais have long been under Japanese de facto control, but neither China nor Taiwan have recognized Tokyo’s territorial claims.
If Japan brings the captain to court, it is demonstrating de jure control of the area, which would destroy the tacit understanding that has existed for years. Japan says the Chinese boat was not engaged in fishing, and that it sought to pick a fight by intentionally colliding with two Japanese patrol boats. Japan says it has satellite images to support its claim.
However, even Japanese academics say the main reason is that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan just went through a leadership battle and neither of the contestants wanted to appear weak, in addition to the party still being relatively new to governing.
Japan’s tough stance is unacceptable to a rising China and Chinese state-run media want Beijing to deploy armed vessels to protect Chinese fishermen. Chinese media say that sending a fleet of 1,000 fishing boats to claim sovereignty over the Diaoyutais would be more effective than any government statement.
While it is easy for the public to resist, the government will have to pick up the pieces afterwards.
In the past, Taiwan and Hong Kong have been on the frontline of protecting Taiwanese or Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyutais. Taiwan has direct geographical, historical and household registration reasons for its claims, while China doesn’t have a leg to stand on. However, the area is rich in oil and China does not want to relent. It is now relying on cross-strait detente and a belief that Taiwan’s government will not challenge its claims.
This is a complex issue that involves Taiwan, Japan, China and the US. Taiwan must be careful not to misread the situation and make a mess of its strategic approach.
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