China’s acting skills on full display

By Paul Lin 林保華  / 

Sun, Sep 19, 2010 - Page 8

On the morning of Sept. 7, a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese coast guard patrol boat in the waters off the Diaoyutais. The fishing vessel and her crew were detained by the Japanese coast guard, igniting new tensions between China and Japan. What are we to make of this event?

From the Japanese side, one of their coast guard vessels was damaged in the collision, leading to the arrest of the captain of the fishing boat “on suspicion of obstructing public duties.”

The Chinese slammed the arrest because they have territorial claims over the Diaoyutais.

Is it true that the Japanese patrol boat sustained damage? There is photographic evidence to prove it. Also, Japan is a democracy, so it is unlikely that the people involved would succeed in colluding to distort the facts.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been distorting facts for close to 100 years now, so they are used to it. If there happens to be any inconsistency between the versions given by either side, I know which one I would believe. According to China’s logic — that the Japanese were wrong to arrest the captain — Taiwan could not arrest anyone engaged in illegal activities in Taiwanese territorial waters either, especially in the eyes of Chinese people who claim that Taiwan is part of China.

Some might ask how the captain of a private fishing vessel had the nerve to collide with a patrol boat from another sovereign nation. The point is that he did. First, were there CCP members amongst the crew? Or perhaps even intelligence officers? Even if they were just members of the general public, the Chinese government still encouraged them to go into the contested waters as a test of sovereignty: To test the waters, so to speak.

Also, the Chinese language newspaper the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) carried an article on Aug. 24 highlighting the arrogance of Chinese fishermen operating in Taiwanese territorial waters, saying they had a right to be there because Taiwan was a part of China. Before the week was out, another article appeared in the paper, this time about how Chinese fishing vessels were entering Taiwanese territorial waters, attacking Taiwanese fishermen and damaging their equipment.

Surely, the collision with the Japanese patrol boat that happened within a week of this last incident is just another example of the same kind of arrogance.

There are territorial disputes all over the world. Any unprovoked use of military force or any other threatening behavior is frowned upon. Prior to the 1970s, neither China nor Taiwan contested the fact that the Diaoyutais were part of the Ryukyu Islands, a fact reflected in official maps and documents.

Even if there was any dispute, there was always the possibility to discuss it.

There was none of this idea that “such-and-such part of your territory was mine way back when, so it really belongs to me, and now that you constitute part of my core interests, I will hear nothing against it.”

In ancient Chinese history, the First Emperor sent his adviser Xu Fu (徐福) across the sea to what is now Japan to seek out the elixir of immortality. The account records that he was accompanied by many young men and women. Some Chinese believe that the Japanese are descendants of these early travelers. Does this give China a territorial claim over Japan? Of course not.

However, China’s attitude does seem to betray a certain acknowledgment that it does not really have much of a leg to stand on. Beijing started out content with a “stern message” delivered by a relatively low-ranking official. Only later, when this did not seem to have the effect it wanted, did China send in a bigger gun to “protest” the situation. It sent a succession of officials, including the deputy foreign minister, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, the foreign minister’s assistant and a foreign ministry spokesman.

This all paved the way for Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪). Since the supposedly China-friendly Japanese government was showing no sign of backing down, Beijing decided to send in an even higher-ranking official, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉國), who summoned Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa early on Sunday morning last week for a stern dressing down.

What does this veritable retinue of diplomats and urgent summoning tell us? What is it, if it is not all an elaborate performance? Someone please give Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) an Oscar. The retinue of diplomats each deserve at least a nomination for best supporting actor. Make no mistake, though: The show is not for the benefit of the international community, it is for the Chinese public, and especially the nationalistic youth, to reassure them of how “patriotic” their leadership is.

However, why the show? Well, because the Chinese government does not have a great record when it comes to patriotism; not only from the way they sold off clumps of territory to the former USSR, but also how they have handled international incidents with Russia.

In February, for example, the Chinese vessel New Star sank off Vladivostok after being fired at by the Russian navy. Some of the crew were rescued, but seven went missing and the captain of the vessel was prosecuted. Despite the seriousness of this incident, Chinese diplomats were instructed only to relay a stern message. The Russian authorities took little notice, saying that the actions of its navy were perfectly legal.

Clearly, the storm Beijing has whipped up over Japan’s arrest of the captain is politically motivated, kicking sand in the face of Japan just to flex its own muscles.

Japan’s response — releasing 14 crew members while keeping the captain detained — is basically designed to be reasonable without being a capitulation of Japan’s authority. In the long term, however, China’s biggest foe remains the US — still the most prominent democracy. Beijing will try to appeal to the common writing system and heritage of China and Japan to dissolve the US-Japan security treaty, so that it can gain control of the island chain. The US, Japan and Taiwan have to keep a watchful eye out for this, and must not show any sign of weakness lest China exploit a chink in the armor.

Paul Lin is a Taipei-based political commentator.

TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER