With each passing day, China’s reaction over last week’s incident between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard vessels in the East China Sea appears to be escalating.

Diplomatic tension has increased with the cancellation of a senior legislator’s visit to Japan this week as well as postponing bilateral talks aimed at signing a treaty over joint gas field development in the East China Sea.

And now, the situation has reached a point where it looks like Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will not be holding a bilateral meeting in New York, where both leaders are expected to attend the United Nations General Assembly, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said Thursday.

Critics doubt this issue will be drawn out for long but warn that Japan needs to be careful about how it deals with the situation so as not to inflame Chinese sentiment any more than it is to avoid serious damage to bilateral ties.

Akio Takahara, a professor of modern Chinese politics at the University of Tokyo, said both China and Japan know that the more important focus is to proceed with developing the “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” a bilateral agreement made in 2008.

“China and Japan understand the basics that they need to find a good way to deal with the incident and focus on cooperating in areas of common interests,” Takahara said. “I don’t think this incident is something that will cause long-term and serious damage to bilateral ties.”

Compared with several years ago when the bilateral relationship was severely strained by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the current situation is not as bad, Takahara pointed out.

During Koizumi’s time in power, there was strong anti-Japan sentiment in China and bilateral ties were seriously damaged. Koizumi did not visit China for five years, and summits weren’t held for a year and a half.

For China, however, the clash in the East China Sea is about a deep-rooted territorial dispute and it can’t back down against Japan easily, Takahara added.

“A territorial dispute is something that China definitely cannot give up because the country’s existence depends on it,” Takahara said. “Nationalism is much stronger there than in Japan and most of the Chinese people think their country should not compromise.”

Takahara pointed out that at the last ASEAN regional forum in July, China found itself facing strong U.S.-led opposition over territorial disputes with such countries as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

“If China continues to remain unyielding against other countries, it could further isolate itself,” Takahara said.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has urged China to stay level-headed.

“China has been continuously doing things like (canceling) a senior official’s trip to Japan or calling off (bilateral) exchanges,” Okada said during a news conference earlier this week. “But the incident is not directly connected and I think it is important to remain calm.”

Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University, said it was a matter of course that China is angry over the arrest of the fishing boat captain because by Chinese law the Senkaku islets belong to Beijing and not Tokyo.

The uninhabited chain is known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The islets are under Japan’s administrative control but claimed by China and Taiwan and are often the source of diplomatic friction.

The trawler’s captain was arrested Sept. 8 on suspicion of obstructing public duties of coast guard personnel, which reportedly occurred after the coast guard tried to get the fishing boat to vacate Japanese waters.

According to Japan Coast Guard Commandant Hisayasu Suzuki, the coast guard has already conducted 21 inspections of foreign ships that have entered Japan’s territorial waters this year.

Japanese-Chinese relations were already tense over several maritime confrontations, including an incident in early April when a Chinese helicopter flew within around 90 meters of the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Suzunami off Okinawa.

But this is the first time that an arrest has been made on a foreign fishing boat in the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, Suzuki said during a recent Diet committee session.

Toyo University’s Nishikawa said if Japan is serious about maintaining administrative control of the Senkakus, the country should not ignore China’s repeated violation of Japanese territorial waters and suggested that Japan take a firmer approach on the high seas.

“It is common sense that (China) would seize the opportunity to take the Senkaku Islands — that’s power politics,” Nishikawa said.

“It is ridiculous for Japan to expect other countries to stay away as long as it declares the area under Japan’s control.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.