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.
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.
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."
Koji Murata, an international relations professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University, seconded that notion, saying China may have been taking advantage of political uncertainty in Japan to test Tokyo. Prime Minister Naoto Kan last week survived a leadership challenge in a closely watched contest just three months into his term.
"Beijing probably tried to provoke Japan during Japanese domestic political turmoil," he wrote in an email. "So far, however, Tokyo has responded very reasonably, while Beijing very emotionally. The contrast is clear enough for the international community, I believe."
"This provocation may make Mr. Kan's new Cabinet seek closer security ties with Washington and reconsider Japan's defense posture and budgets," he wrote.
On Monday, Taiwan's United Evening News, citing Japanese media, reported that Japan was mulling its first expansion of its land forces since 1972, with a focus on its "western islands" (including Okinawa and the disputed Senkaku).
China: newly assertive, brash
Fudan University's Shen said China and Japan had many positive interactions in recent years, but that some conflict was inevitable, especially as China's fishing fleet and other economic interests press into waters near Japan. He said Japan's growing economic dependence on China, and China's economic and military rise, had changed the equation in the disputed Diaoyu islets.
"They [Japan's Coast Guard] have been there for years illegally, and China has been curtailing itself for years in order not to have a war," said Shen. "What's changed is that our people are less willing to do this, and our government is more capable of enforcing our claim."
Shen said China told its fishermen told not to sail near the disputed islets in order to avoid trouble, but that some fishermen simply ignored the government.
He said China had many means of retaliating against Japan, and wouldn't be shy about using them. "Every day our man is held, we are hurt," said Shen. "But there are places where we can hurt Japan. For instance, Japan still wants to be a member of the U.N. Security Council. Dream. No way."
"As long as a country named China exists on earth, a country named Japan wouldn't have the slightest chance of being considered a new member of the U.N. Security Council," he said.
Shen compared the cutting of high-level ties with Japan to China's cutting of China-U.S. military ties after the U.S. sold Taiwan $6.5-billion in weaponry earlier this year.
Still, he said the fishing boat dispute was far less serious than U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and called for a quick resolution.
"We should both restrain [ourselves], never resort to war, each give the other face and have the least harmful, non-violent settlement as early as possible," said Shen.
Plenty of precedent
Philip Yang, a former adviser to Taiwan's national security council, said Taiwan's government has dealt with numerous incidents of Taiwanese fishing boats being detained by the Japanese. (In fact, Japan detained the owner and skipper of a Taiwan fishing vessel the same week as it detained the Chinese captain.)
Usually such disputes are resolved quietly, said Yang, with the Taiwan fishing boat owner having to pay a 300,000 to 400,000 yen ($3,500 to $4,600) fine to Japan to secure its release.
"But in this case, it's more difficult," he said. "From Japan's point of view, the fishing vessel intentionally tried to hit the coast guard vessels, and so they say they need more time to investigate."
The limits for ships near the Diaoyutai are well-known, said Yang, with a 12-nautical-mile no-go zone around the disputed islets and a 24-nautical-mile buffer, both enforced by the Japanese coast guard. "If you enter 24 [nautical miles] they try to stop you, if you enter 12 nautical miles they will try to arrest you," he said.
Twelve nautical miles is an often-used demarcation for territorial waters; many nations also now claim a 200-mile "exclusive economic zone" in which they have sole rights to fishing, oil, gas or other resources.
No easy way out
There are some signs that both governments are looking to defuse the situation to some extent.
Both China and Taiwan have blocked most activists from sailing to the islands and complicating the situation. And the Chinese government has also tried to tamp down anti-Japan protests and anti-Japan sentiment on the internet, before it spins out of control.
The new Japanese foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, has been making conciliatory statements and calling for calm, despite his reputation as something of a foreign policy "hawk."
But analysts say neither side looks inclined to accept third-party mediation on the matter. Neither is willing to take the underlying territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice, which has arbitrated similar disagreements. Even if the ICJ did address it, Taiwan's rival claim would greatly complicate a resolution.
Meanwhile, the Chinese captain remains in detention — and China's foreign ministry shows no signs of softening its tone.
"If the Japanese side clings obstinately to its own course and doubles its mistakes, China will take strong countermeasures, for which Japan shall bear all the consequences," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said today.