The weakness of Japanese diplomacy was exposed last week when Tokyo gave in to Beijing and released a Chinese trawler captain arrested earlier this month near the Senkaku Islands.
But China did not emerge unscathed either, as its pressure on Japan drew strong international criticism as well, analysts said.
Foreign media lashed out at China’s aggressive stance on Japan’s arrest of Zhan Qixion, whose fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the disputed island chain. Earlier this week, The Washington Post criticized China’s action as “19th century mercantilism.”
The Hindustan Times called China a “bully” and described its behavior as a “near hysterical response.”
Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said that while Japan may have become a “laughingstock” for giving in and releasing Zhan last week, China’s reputation also suffered.
“I think many countries felt that China’s actions were not ethical and not exactly commendable,” Kubo said. “Stopping exports of rare earth metals is close to waging economic war. China has clearly shown it will ignore the international norm and do whatever it takes to stake its claim to disputed territory.”
The Senkaku Islands, rich in natural resources such as oil and gas, are under the administrative control of Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan. China is also locked in territorial conflicts with other Asian countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, in the South China Sea.
“I think Asian countries, now more than ever, are hoping for the U.S. to maintain its militaristic presence in the region,” Kubo said.
For the United States, Kubo explained, freedom of navigation is extremely important.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in July at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations that the U.S. has a “national interest” in the South China Sea and indicated the U.S. was prepared to participate in resolving the dispute. China reacted swiftly and called Clinton’s statements “an attack.”
“China’s confrontation with the U.S. is definitely escalating,” Kubo said.
In Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s bilateral meeting with Clinton last week, Clinton stated that the Senkakus, which are further north in the East China Sea, are covered by the Japan-U.S. security pact.
Kubo pointed out that it is rare for a top U.S. official to declare that the bilateral security pact covers the disputed islands.
“The fact that Secretary Clinton made the statement amid this tension shows that the U.S. strengthened its commitment,” Kubo said. “It is clear that the U.S. is on its guard and has strengthened its commitment (to Japan) and I think China is aware of that.”
Japan-China relations have been severely strained ever since the Chinese skipper was arrested Sept. 8. High-level meetings and cultural exchanges between the two have been suspended, anti-Japanese sentiment is rising in China, and an unofficial ban on Japan-bound exports of rare earth metals, a crucial commodity, has been blamed on Beijing.
When Japan decided last Friday to let the captain go, The New York Times called it a “humiliating retreat.”
“Japan will be viewed as a country that will always cave in if pressured and I think (the captain’s release) will have a long-term negative effect on the nation’s diplomacy,” Kubo said.
Analysts agree that while China did suffer some blow-back for its harsh actions, it managed to bring the territorial dispute front and center on the world stage. Japan’s official position is that the Senkaku Islands are an integral part of Japan’s sovereign territory” and thus no dispute exists.
Last week in New York, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned Japan of “consequences” if it didn’t immediately release the captain.
Zhu Jianrong, a professor of international relations and Chinese political affairs at Toyo Gakuen University, pointed out that the statement was a signal to the international community that Japan and China were engaged in a territorial tussle.
Wen’s statement “could be seen as a message to make the world acknowledge that there is a territorial dispute between China and Japan,” Zhu said. “As tensions intensify between China and Japan, the international community will perceive that the two countries are fighting over territory.”
Despite the skipper’s release, China has not eased off. Instead, it is demanding an apology and compensation. Japan immediately rejected these demands and said it will seek payment for the damage the Chinese boat allegedly caused to the coast guard cutters.
But Zhu said he thinks the peak of the crisis has passed and that the important task now for both countries is to focus on calming their publics and resuming bilateral exchanges.
A number of key diplomatic events are coming up this fall — the Asia-Europe Meeting next week in Belgium, the COP10 environmental conference in Nagoya and the East Asia Summit in Vietnam, both in October, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Yokohama in November.
Although Prime Minister Naoto Kan had canceled a trip to the ASEM talks because it conflicts with the extraordinary Diet session that begins Friday, he reversed himself and said he would attend.
Fearing that Japan’s absence may benefit China, government officials said the prime minister needs to explain Japan’s stance to the leaders of other countries.
Zhu believes Japan and China will begin moving forward to fix bilateral ties, adding that a major barometer of the situation will be whether a summit meeting between Kan and Chinese President Hu Jintao can be held by the end of October.
“Neither country wants the situation to get any worse,” he said. “China and Japan will deal with their publics’ dissatisfaction while beginning to take action beneath the surface to restore relations and resume bilateral exchanges.”