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Update on Japan/China dispute

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Japan’s DPJ government bumbled its way into a dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands.  It now seems that Japan may have accidentally pulled off a brilliant victory!

The uninhabited Senkaku Islands have been under Japanese control since the Americans handed them back to Japan in the 1970s.  Being closer to Taiwan and China than to Japan, and also being a rich fishing area, Chinese fishermen are forever meandering into the area.  There are always disputes and clashes between the Japanese Coastal Guards and these Chinese fishermen. 

But for some unknown reason, a few weeks back the Japanese Coastal Guards arrested a Chinese fishing vessel, and retained its captain for some 17 days.  It was only in the face of bellicose Chinese protests, which eventually rose to the level of Premier Wen Jiabao, and some gentle encouragement from the Americans, that Japan released the Chinese fishing captain and dropped the case.  Japan’s government came off looking weak, while China’s government was widely regarded as being a bully-boy.

Why did the Chinese get so excited about this case?  They believe that allowing the prosecution of the Chinese fishermen would amount to implicit acceptance of Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, something which is unacceptable given that China also claims sovereignty.  China is also emboldened by hubris thanks to its emerging economic and political power, and enjoys throwing its weight around.  At the same time, China’s communist political regime feels insecure at home, and enjoys any opportunity to impress its domestic population – especially when it comes to Japan, which is China’s arch enemy number 1.

All these factors seem to be relevant.  But it has now come to light that China may have had a gentleman’s agreement with Japan’s former LDP government according to which neither side would create a dispute over the Senkaku Islands.  Did the DPJ government create this dispute with China out of ignorance of the gentleman’s agreement or blatant defiance?  The latter is very possible given its desire to promote support for the US/Japan Alliance, and Foreign Minister Maehara’s anti-Chinese position.  No wonder the Chinese got upset!  (Even if the Japanese government found out about the gentleman’s agreement after arresting the Chinese fisherman, Japanese pride and face would make it difficult to back-down.)

The Chinese government may indeed have reacted reasonably.  As the dispute unfolded, day-by-day they gradually wound up the pressure on the Japanese government, which had plenty of opportunities to make an about-face.  But the Japanese hung on until Chinese protests reached the bullying stage – embargo on rare earth exports, cancelling a Japanese school children visit to the Shanghai Expo, discouraging Chinese tourists going to Japan, etc.

Although the Japanese government was initially humiliated, China has clearly come off worse.  All the Japanese are now convinced that China is an untrustworthy, aggressive neighbor.  Moreover, other Asian countries, which feel decidedly nervous about China’s power, feel the same.  In the background is China’s desire to negotiate with South East Asian nations one-by-one over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea – and the US offer to ASEAN to help mediate this dispute.  International companies are now re-thinking their rare earth strategies by looking for new supplies.

As Hilary Clinton recently said, "... the United States, along with other allies -- Japan and Europe and elsewhere -- are going to be looking for more resources and looking for more sources of these rare-earth minerals. So, while we're pleased by the clarification we received from the Chinese Government, we still think that the world, as a whole, needs to find alternatives and to find new sources, which we will be pursuing."

The Chinese government must now feel outplayed by the bumbling Japanese government.  It has spent years trying to build up its soft power with its Asian neighbors, only to see much of this goodwill go up in smoke.  Anti-Japanese protests are now popping up in China, partly encouraged by the government.  The government does not want these to get out of hand, and create social and political instability.  It is also fearful that protestors might decide to add on other protest issues like the rich-poor gap, corruption or freedom of speech.

One clear result of all the fracas is the US – now a “Pacific nation” according to President Obama – is very clearly back in favor in Asia, especially in Japan, where everyone is supporting again the US/Japan Alliance.

China still has many things to learn.  And one of those things is the “law of unintended consequences”.

The Japanese also should be careful.  Hilary Clinton also recently clarified "... with respect to the Senkaku Islands, the United States has never taken a position on sovereignty, but we have made it very clear that the islands are part of our mutual treaty obligations, and the obligation to defend Japan. We have certainly encouraged both Japan and China to seek peaceful resolution of any disagreements that they have in this area or others."

Does this mean that the US might encourage the Japanese might encourage the Japanese to give up or share the Senkaku Islands one day as part of a broader settlement on the disputed territories in the East and South East China Seas?

It might indeed make sense ... but it would make the Japanese very unhappy.



Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, Hanoi, Vietnam, October 30, 2010