One year after the Senkaku incident, Japanese and Chinese people have a bad impression of each other, despite deepening economic and trade relations between the two countries. In fact, China is Japan’s No. 1 trade partner. In this situation, the Japanese government must act coolheadedly toward China but must have the will to prevent any move on the part of China to weaken Japan’s legal and effective rule of the Senkaku Islands.
Early Sept. 7, 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel hit two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships inside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Coast Guard officials boarded the Chinese vessel and the JCG arrested its captain early the next day. A week after the incident, the Naha District Public Prosecutors Office decided to release him in view of the negative effect that continuing the investigation would have on the Japanese people and Japan-China relations.
China had strongly reacted to the arrest. It might have hoped that Japan would tactfully treat the incident to avoid a diplomatic row. Clearly, however, the Chinese vessel violated Japanese territorial waters. It must be pointed out that the Senkaku Islands have been integral part of Japanese territories since Japan declared the islands to be part of Okinawa Prefecture in January 1895 after confirming that they were not ruled by what was then China’s Qing Dynasty.
The Senkakus were not among the islands — Taiwan and the Penghus — that China had ceded to Japan under the Shimonoseki Treaty signed by Japan and China after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). The treaty took effect in May 1895.
After the islands’ incorporation into Japanese territories, Japanese nationals built a wharf and a factory to process dried bonito on the islands. They became uninhabited in 1940.
Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty of September 1951, the Senkaku Islands were placed under U.S. administrative power as part of Japan’s Nansei Islands. China at that time raised no objection to this provision.
It must be remembered that China and Taiwan did not start making sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands until the existence of offshore resources, including oil, was confirmed in the sea near the islands around 1970.
Before the resources came to light, China’s maps and the Chinese government recognized the islands as part of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture).
As late as in 1992, China enacted a territorial waters law that said the Diaoyu Islands (the Chinese name of the Senkaku Islands) were part of China.
As China is trying to get its neighboring countries and the United States to accept its position that the South and East China seas are “core interests” of China, friction is happening between Japan and China in the sea near the Senkaku Islands.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry protested against Japan over the fishing operations in early July by a group of fishing boats from the city of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, near the islands. A vessel operated by a Japanese political group accompanied the fishing boats. In late August, two Chinese fishing patrol boats violated Japanese territorial waters near the islands and then Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto protested to Chinese ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua.
For a long time, Japan has taken a low-profile posture over its sovereign rights over the Senkaku Islands in an apparent effort not to antagonize China. But it should raise its voice in the international community about its sovereign rights over the islands and make it clear that it legally and effectively rules them. As Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the U.S. President Barack Obama agreed in their New York meeting on Sept. 24, 2010, Japan and the U.S. should closely consult on “maritime issues in the western Pacific.”
Even after one year has passed since the Senkaku incident, it is casting a shadow on the perception of Japanese and Chinese people of each other.
Apparently worried about the worsening of Japanese people’s perception of China, the Chinese government has designated this year as a year to improve China’s relations with Japan. After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to express his condolences to Japan and disaster victims. In May, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Miyagi Prefecture to meet disaster victims. China also sent relief goods and a rescue party.
But according to a poll conducted in Japan and China in June and July, 78.3 percent of the Japanese polled had a bad impression of China — a rise of 6.3 percentage points from a year before — and 65.9 percent of the Chinese polled held a similar impression of Japan — a rise of 10 percentage points.
Both figures were the worst since the poll was first taken in 2005. Even so, it is encouraging that 77.6 of the Japanese polled and 83.1 percent of the Chinese polled think that bilateral relations are important.
Both the Japanese and Chinese governments at least should quickly develop a mechanism of communication to avert frictions in the East China Sea. They should also resume talks on joint development of offshore resources.
The most important thing is that China accept that Japan legally and effectively rules the Senkaku Islands and refrains from taking up the sovereignty issue.