Nothing should make the rest of the world so nervous as conflict between the two East Asian behemoths, China and Japan. Their long history of incestuous, bitterly conflicted relations dominates the political and economic landscape in their part of the world.
That is why even a minor clash between a Chinese fishing boat and small Japanese coastal security craft has turned into a major flash point, exciting not only their two capitals, but Washington as well.
We may never know the exact details of the episode. But in early September, a Chinese fishing craft bumped two Japanese coast guard speedboats. The episode took place in rich tuna grounds among rocky uninhabited islands, which stretch southward in the East China Sea from the Japanese main home islands through the Ryuku chain (including Okinawa, heavily loaded with U.S. bases) and on to Taiwan.
These islands, called the Senkakus by the Japanese, Diaoyu by the Chinese, are claimed by both. The islands have taken on new importance because of speculation there may be oil and gas deposits beneath them. The argument is an expression of China's growing economic and military power, reflected in recent estimates that the Chinese gross national product has surpassed that of Japan as the world's No. 2 economy behind the United States.
The "normal" routine in such encounters is that the Japanese take the fishing boats into custody, eventually returning them either to the Chinese mainland or, often, to their Taiwanese home ports. But this time, apparently, the fishing boat captain attempted to make a run for it before being captured. Tokyo almost immediately released the crew and the ship, but held on to the commander to be tried locally under Japanese law.
Beijing howled. Its government-controlled media repeated recent highly chauvinistic claims, as it had recently done for other contested islets in the South China Sea. Stock Chinese communist phrases placed the incident on a par with challenges to Beijing's sovereignty over troubled internal provinces, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
A newly installed government in Tokyo stood its ground at first, but quickly caved in to Beijing's demands. A local magistrate released the ship's captain, ruling that the collisions were "deliberate, but not premeditated." Tokyo at first had argued that the two "bumps" occurred at different intervals, indicating the unlikelihood that they were accidental. And the question hanging in the air was whether the ship's captain was acting on instructions or whether he was a rogue mariner who had taken it upon himself to try to intimidate the smaller Japanese craft.
Whatever the sequence of events, behind the scenes a complex political and diplomatic scramble was under way. Washington, which in some Japanese circles had been seen as less than responsive to Tokyo's concerns in recent international issues, especially on the North Korean threat, seemed to shift its position. Just weeks earlier, Washington had made a point of removing these disputed islands from the umbrella of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. But Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a public address ranked U.S.-China relations as subsidiary to the concerns of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
A State Department spokesman used diplomatese to explain that Washington made a distinction between areas under Japanese control and sovereignty — but did reaffirm the application of the bilateral defense treaty in any defense of Japanese territory against aggression, presumably including from China.
Washington's response bucked up the Japanese, not the least the new foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, a power in the heterogeneous ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Unlike many of his former socialist and pacifist party colleagues, Mr. Maehara, who arrived at the post largely because of internal DPJ politics, is seen as a hawk on China and one of the most stalwart supporters of the American alliance. But some Japanese explained Tokyo's capitulation in the clash as having been "advised" by Washington.
Meanwhile, Beijing had added important pressures to its propaganda. China is now Japan's top trading partner and an important export and re-export market — at a time when the Japanese economy is struggling. Although officials later denied it, the Chinese reportedly halted shipments to Japan of "rare earths" — on which China temporarily has a world monopoly. These minerals are critical to many electronic products, the heart of Japanese high-tech exports.
Four Japanese working for a company that has been engaged in a long-term project to "demobilize" chemical-warfare sites in China built by the Japanese during World War II were arrested, ostensibly for espionage. Beijing canceled bilateral meetings, which has long been used as a way to keep complex Japanese-Chinese relations on an even keel.
As this is written, the saga continues. Beijing is demanding an "apology" — an issue that carries much more import in East Asian cultures — and compensation.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders @cox.net
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