HONG KONG — While the immediate crisis over Japan’s seizure last month of a Chinese fishing vessel that rammed two Japanese coast guard patrol boats has ended with the release of the captain, the repercussions will long be felt.
For one thing, distrust of each other on the part of both governments and peoples, which had begun to fade after Beijing and Tokyo agreed not to rake up old coals concerning history, is again on the rise and is unlikely to subside in the foreseeable future. The history issue, which both Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao had tried to put to rest during their respective Japan visits in 2007 and 2008, lurks just beneath the surface and could re-emerge, given the slightest provocation.
During Hu’s visit, Japan and China issued a joint statement recognizing that “the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for each of the two countries.”
That continues to be the case. Japan and China need each other, and in a broader sense, Asia needs the two most important countries in the region to get along with each other — to trade, to cooperate and to trust each other.
But the ruckus over the Chinese fishing vessel, which was operating in waters near islands over which both Japan and China claim sovereignty — called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyu islands by China — now threatens the future of the region.
More than three decades ago, when China and Japan signed a friendship treaty, the territorial dispute was not allowed to stand in the way. China’s leader at that time, Deng Xiaoping, suggested shelving the sovereignty dispute in favor of joint development of economic resources, primarily natural gas.
That should still be the position of both China and Japan. Shelving the dispute should mean maintaining the status quo. These islands are under Japanese administration, and if China allows its fishing vessels to operate in those waters, that would represent an attempt to change the status quo and has to be resisted.
Similarly, if Japan tries to prosecute a Chinese national operating within these disputed waters, rather than simply drive away the fishing vessel concerned, that, too, would be an attempt to change the status quo.
In this latest episode, it appears that both governments allowed their nationals to take actions that threatened to change the status quo. In this connection, it may be helpful if the two countries can create some mechanism to prevent such incidents in the future. While it will be difficult to do so in view of rising nationalism in both countries, not to do so is to invite future disaster.
Actually, maintaining the status quo means carrying out the agreed joint development of economic resources. As long as this is not done, each country will suspect the other of harboring plans to do so unilaterally, contrary to their agreement.
The recent heightening of Sino-Japan tension also had the effect of pushing Japan closer to the United States and strengthening their security alliance.
The American military umbrella is something that Japan needs and something that also gives a sense of security to smaller countries in Asia. It is, in fact, part of the status quo. If Japan and China work to strengthen regional integration, the American alliance needs to be part of the new setup.
China must not ask Japan to choose between itself and the U.S.. Japan needs both countries. It needs a strong economic relationship with China and it needs a reliable security relationship with the U.S.
It is also in U.S. interests for China and Japan to get along well. After all, Washington certainly does not want to be dragged into a war with China, especially over a few uninhabited rocks.
While it is certainly in U.S. interests to be regarded as indispensable to Asian security, providing a credible balance against China — the new, rising military and economic power — the U.S. itself needs to develop strong bilateral relationships with each of the major economies in the region, including China.
In developing those relationships, Washington must keep in mind the interests of its friends and allies. Those interests, too, are part of the status quo and need to be maintained.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org)