NEW YORK — Prime Minister Naoto Kan and new Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s trip to attend U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York was largely overshadowed by tensions between Japan and China over a ship collision incident near the disputed Senkaku Islands that escalated day by day.
The U.N. talks on various global challenges and a number of bilateral meetings should have been the perfect occasion to demonstrate to the world that Japan’s government now has a solid power base, as Kan survived a ruling Democratic Party of Japan leadership race and launched anew his Cabinet just before he embarked on the U.S. trip.
But both the prime minister and Maehara, who was appointed as foreign minister on Sept. 18, were instead required to allay international concerns over the rapidly chilling relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
The new foreign minister explained developments between the two Asian nations to his fellow Group of Eight ministers and European Union counterpart and outlined how Japan is handling the case.
The strained Japan-China ties were high on the agenda during a meeting between Maehara and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. They were also touched upon during the summit talks between Kan and President Barack Obama.
Maehara scored a diplomatic gain as he confirmed with Clinton that the disputed Japan-administered islands in the East China Sea claimed by both China and Taiwan are subject to the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which stipulates Washington will retaliate against a military strike on Japanese territory.
It was meant to serve as a warning against China’s rising pressure on Japan over the island row. At the same time, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Clinton encouraged dialogue between the two Asian countries and called for early settlement of the case.
However, no contacts between Kan, Maehara, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi were apparently made amid the rising tensions between Tokyo and Beijing during their stay in New York.
The incident suddenly took a dramatic turn Saturday with prosecutors releasing a Chinese fishing boat captain who was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of deliberately ramming Japan Coast Guard ships near the islands, known in China as Diaoyu and in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai.
Such a development was widely interpreted as a major diplomatic defeat for Japan, since Tokyo seems to have caved in to growing pressure from China. Repercussions from the case could go beyond bilateral relations as China also has territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.
But a senior Japanese government source said the release of the Chinese captain should not be simply recognized as a result of Japan’s weak-kneed diplomacy, because defused tensions between the two mutually dependent economic powers would be welcomed by their business communities.
Also, it must have been detrimental to China that the United States made it clear that it sides with Japan, with Clinton’s reference to the Senkaku Islands covered by the Japan-U.S. security pact, when world leaders gathered at the U.N. meetings, the source said.
Another negative outcome of the incident is that Beijing’s hardline approach over territorial issues raised the alert level of its neighbors, according to the source.
Kan stressed the need for Japan and China to act in a level-headed manner and deepen mutually beneficial ties at a news conference before his departure from New York.
Maehara showed a tougher stance as he said Japan will “resolutely deal with” similar incidents in the future.
However, working out a mechanism to avert similar incidents and restoring bilateral ties that have quickly deteriorated over the past few weeks may not be an easy task for Kan’s nascent Cabinet, which has been fiercely criticized by opposition parties over its handling of the collision case.
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