Thu, Sep 30, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Beijing learning the wrong lessons


Japanese prosecutors decided over the weekend to release Chinese fishing boat captain Zhan Qixiong (詹其雄), whom they arrested after he allegedly rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels in the waters around the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).

The decision, a Japanese deputy public prosecutor said, was made “taking into account the impact on our citizens and Japan-China relations, [so] our judgment was that it would have been excessive to prolong the investigation and his detention.”

The Japanese government’s comments make it even clearer that this decision was made because of the impact of the case on Sino–Japanese relations.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku stated explicitly: “It is a fact that there was the possibility that Japan–China relations might worsen or that there were signs of that happening.”

While this decision may resolve the immediate issue of Zhan, it is likely to generate far more problems in the future.

The situation first erupted on Sept. 7, when Japanese coast guard vessels intercepted Zhan’s fishing boat in the waters around the disputed islands. The captain tried to flee and apparently collided with two of the coast guard vessels, for which he was arrested.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Beijing demanded the Japanese government “immediately and unconditionally” release the captain. Such an aggressive response was unusual, given that the situation was far from critical. Of even greater concern, however, was the fact that Beijing escalated both the rhetoric and its responses over the following two weeks, to the point of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) publicly snubbing Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan last week at the UN and China suspending the sale of rare earth minerals (essential for the production of electronics) to Japanese customers. For Tokyo to decide to release the Chinese captain in the face of such overreaction only teaches Beijing that its policies worked.

This is an extremely dangerous precedent not only for Japan, but also for the larger East Asian region and, ultimately, even for the US.

It was Beijing, not Tokyo, which decided that this relatively minor incident should escalate. Some recent reports even suggest that the People’s Liberation Army was responsible for the harder line pursued by the Chinese in this crisis. Regardless of whether it was ultimately the military that pushed this position or simply hardliners writ large, they have now been handed a victory by Tokyo. Chinese demands for immediate and unconditional release have been met.

More to the point, from Beijing’s perspective, the combination of diplomatic paroxysm and economic blackmail have led to a desired outcome. This would suggest the successful application of weishe.

While commonly translated as “deterrence,” the Chinese phrase weishe embodies not only dissuasion (commonly associated with the term deterrence), but also coercion. That is, whereas Western concepts of deterrence tend to focus on persuading a rival not to do something they would otherwise do, the Chinese concept of deterrence also includes persuading a rival to do something they would otherwise not do.

It would therefore be logical for Beijing to pursue a similar approach over future territorial disputes — use weishe to coerce neighbors into making concessions. And there are many such disputes looming if not already underway, including with Japan and most of Southeast Asia, as well as India. Consequently, the Japanese decision makes it more likely that there will be increasing confrontations all along China’s disputed periphery.

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