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East Asia showdown: China, Japan and a failure of diplomacy

Analysis: Asia's titans can't seem to make nice. What does it mean for the region?

Chinese policemen
Chinese paramilitary policemen keep watch outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 20, 2010. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — A minor spat over a fishing boat has escalated to one of the worst diplomatic feuds between China and Japan in years.

With still no end in sight to the two-week-old dispute, China has added a series of harsh countermeasures to its already shrill rhetoric. It has cut off all high-level ties with Japan (those at the ministerial or provincial level or above), halted talks on more China-Japan flights and aviation rights, and postponed meetings on coal and joint gas exploration, according to China's state-run newswire Xinhua.

Those moves came after a local Japanese court on Sunday extended by another 10 days the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain at the center of the row. Meanwhile, Tokyo has continued to deny the very existence of a territorial dispute in the islands northeast of Taiwan where the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain.

Called the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, the islets are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. Japan effectively controls them through its coast guard presence. (See previous article for background.)

While no-one is expecting armed conflict any time soon, the episode has troubling implications for East Asia's security outlook in coming years. It highlights the deep reservoirs of mistrust and animosity that remain some 65 years after World War II's end — and the failure of diplomacy, at least so far, to bridge that divide.

"Both China and Japan still lack the wisdom and ability to reconcile at this point," said Shen Dingli, an international relations expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, in a telephone interview.

The fishing boat is not the only sore point in China-Japan relations now. Japan is mad at China for buying too many yen-denominated bonds, helping push the currency to a 15-year high and so making Japanese exports less competitive just as its trying to get out of the economic doldrums.

To top it off, China blames Japan over a panda who died of a suspected heart attack at a Japanese zoo while keepers tried to extract semen for breeding purposes, saying it was the wrong season for such a procedure.

Echoing conflict

The conflict's effects go beyond the two Asian giants. Taiwan waded into the mess last week, sending coast guard vessels to guard an activist who was trumpeting Taiwan's own claim to the islets. (Taiwan's ships left the area after a standoff.)

The U.S. put its oar in, too, with a senior Pentagon official calling for China-Japan talks to resolve the dispute and a former top U.S. official reminding China of America's security obligations to Japan.

"My view is what China senses is a distracted United States who has a chilled relationship with Tokyo," former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in Japan last week, according to the Japan Times. "So they are testing what they can get away with."

U.S. officials are on record saying that the U.S.-Japan defense treaty applies to the disputed islets and surrounding waters, since they are effectively under Japan's administration. That means the U.S. could in theory be called on to help Japan in any military conflict with China over the islets, though some observers pooh-pooh that idea.

Troubled legacy

China-Japan ties had improved under more China-friendly Japanese prime ministers since 2006, when Junichiro Koizumi stepped down. The two sides even inked a 2008 agreement on the joint exploration of a disputed gas field in the East China Sea, one of their thorniest disputes.

But historical distrust remains, more than 100 years after Japan snatched Taiwan from the Qing Dynasty, and later, in the early 1930s, invaded and occupied much of China. Saturday's small anti-Japan protests in Beijing and other cities marked the anniversary of an incident that led to Japan's occupation.

Anti-Japan sentiment is easily whipped up in China, where nationalist netizens refer to their neighbor patronizingly as "little Japan." For its part, Japan, while all too eager to do business with China, doesn't have a very good image of the giant to the west. Concerns range from the safety of Chinese food imports to China's increased military muscle-flexing.

"Even though Japan-China relations are much better than under Koizumi, Japan's impression of China is not very good," said Tadahiro Ishihara, at National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations in Taipei. "There's dissatisfaction over many things."

Only 26 percent of Japanese have a favorable view of China, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll, down from 55 percent in 2002.

Japan: mistrust, inexperience

Ishihara said Japanese Coast Guard had a harsher than usual attitude in this case; usually they release people quickly after detaining them. He said the current Japanese government's inexperience and infighting may partly explain how a minor spat has ballooned into a major diplomatic row.

The one-year-old Japanese government has sought to curb the power of career bureaucrats, including those at the foreign ministry, but the results have been mixed. "This government doesn't have foreign relations sense, they're inexperienced," said Ishihara. "There are more political considerations now."

Still, Ishihara said some in Japan believed that the Chinese government had encouraged fishermen to go to the Senkaku to "test Japan's attitude and reaction." "It's possible," he said. "You can't rule it out."