Japan-China Discord and Cooperation over East China Sea - Discuss Japan
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Diplomacy, No.12  Nov. 8, 2012

Japan-China Discord and Cooperation over East China Sea

Photo : Anami Yusuke

Anami Yusuke

Japan and China have fallen into a state of serious antagonism, despite this year marking the 40th anniversary of the normalization of their diplomatic relations. This unstable situation was triggered by a set of events that occurred around the Senkaku Islands, which lie in the middle of the East China Sea. The problem of the Senkakus has become a major obstacle in achieving a rational approach to building a strategic partnership of mutual benefit between the two countries. The following is a historical review of cooperation and discord over the East China Sea between Japan and China prior to this year’s major stalemate.

Japan-China Discord and Cooperation over East China Sea

1. Prelude to Antagonism

Antagonism between Japan and China over the East China Sea can be traced back to a report compiled in 1968 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), noting the possibility of huge oil reserves in the waters around the Senkaku Islands.

Following the report, the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan), which was then a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and had official diplomatic ties with Japan, suddenly claimed sovereignty over the Senkakus, which are part of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. It began a joint exploration with a U.S. oil development company in the waters around the Senkaku Islands. While Japan immediately protested to Taiwan, it promoted a scheme to jointly develop seabed resources with both Taiwan and South Korea in a bid to avoid a deterioration of relations with Taiwan.

That move drew fire from the mainland Chinese Communist government. Claiming Chinese sovereignty over the Senkakus in a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dec. 30, 1971, the Chinese government opposed the joint exploration plan. The People’s Republic of China had never protested against Japan with regard to the Senkaku Islands before this statement, which thus represented the mainland Chinese government’s first ever claim to the Senkakus.

This point was raised in negotiations between Japan and China on normalization of their diplomatic ties, which got fully under way the following year. At a meeting between Yoshikatsu Takeiri, then chairman of the Komeito party, who visited China in July 1972, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese leader referred to the question of the “Senkaku Islands”, conveying the view that “historians brought it into question because of the oil issue” and stating that “this question does not need to be weighed heavily.”

Also when Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing in September 1972, Zhou Enlai told him that the Senkakus had become “a problem due to the presence of oil…neither Taiwan nor the United States would have made it an issue without oil.”

In short, the Chinese government leader at that time showed his recognition that the question of the Senkaku Islands, over which China began denying Japan’s sovereignty at the end of 1971, was a problem which had newly emerged in connection with the development of seabed resources.

The recognition shown by Zhou Enlai matched the Chinese Communist Party’s understanding of external affairs before 1970. For example, an article titled “Battle of People in the Ryukyu Islands Against the U.S. Occupation” in the Jan. 8, 1953, edition of the People’s Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party, stated that the Senkaku Islands were small islets belonging to the Ryukyu (Okinawa) Islands. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party officially declared that the Senkaku Islands were a territory of Japan.

The “statement on the territorial waters of the People’s Republic of China,” released by the Chinese government in September 1958, did not refer to the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese Communist Party then recognized as part of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

At that time, China adopted extremely strict gag rules in connection with the anti-rightists’ campaign. Under such circumstances, the “World Atlas Collection,” published in Beijing in 1958, described the Senkaku Islands as included in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and used the Japanese word “Uotsurijima” for one of the Senkakus, instead of the Chinese word “Diaoyu.”

As such, the Chinese Communist Party recognized the Senkakus as Japanese territory in the 1950s. In the 1970s, however, it made an about-face and began claiming Chinese sovereignty because the issue was closely linked to the legitimacy of government, namely whether the Republic of China in Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China on the mainland was the legitimate government of China.

But China normalized its diplomatic relations with Japan in 1972 on condition that Japan sever its official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. As a result, the motive for the Chinese Communist Party to adhere to its claim over the Senkaku Islands at the risk of deterioration in its relationship with Japan greatly weakened.

As its top priority diplomatic issue at that time, the Chinese Communist Party needed to reinforce its ties with the United States and Japan so as to counter its main adversary, the Soviet Union. When Deng Xiaoping, then deputy premier of China, visited Japan in 1978, he proposed shelving the Senkaku problem as it had the possibility of causing Sino-Japanese relations to deteriorate. The Chinese government refrained from stating China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands in domestic laws until the start of the 1990s.

The Chinese government stipulated the Senkaku Islands as its territory for the first time in the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on its Territorial waters and their Contiguous Zone” enacted in 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed.

China’s addition of the Senkaku Islands to its territory in this territorial waters law does not have a substantive effect on Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus from the viewpoint of international law. When a territorial dispute is submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the court sets the time of occurrence of the dispute as a critical date and, in principle, regards the deeds and facts up until that date as valid evidence.

Should the territorial dispute over the Senkakus be referred to the ICJ, there are a number of conceivable candidates for a critical date. But one thing that is clear is that the date will be set before Dec. 30, 1971, when the Chinese government protested Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus for the first time in history. This means that deeds and facts demonstrating “effective sovereignty” over the Senkakus before Dec. 30, 1971 will be taken as valid evidence by the ICJ.

From the viewpoint of international law, therefore, the territorial waters law instituted by the Chinese government in 1992 will not strengthen China’s claim over the Senkakus. In addition, the absence of any stipulation by the Chinese government in any domestic laws before 1971 that the Senkaku Islands were a territory subject to Chinese sovereignty, along with the fact that China had never protested Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus before 1971, would be a decisively disadvantageous factor for China in judging whether it had established effective sovereignty over the Senkakus.

In the first place, it runs counter to the common sense of international law and the modern concept of sovereignty for a country to claim that small islands are part of its territory after making no territorial claim in domestic laws for 43 years since its foundation.

But when the question of drawing exclusive economic zones and continental shelves under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Japan and China ratified in 1996, emerged as a new issue between the two countries, the Chinese government began repeatedly to voice its stance denying Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus which affects the delimitation of boundaries, basing its assertion on the territorial waters law.

As a result, the Senkaku problem has come to be positioned as one of the principal matters of concern between Japan and China in connection with the new issue of delimiting exclusive economic zones and continental shelves where sovereign rights for seabed resources are guaranteed.

2. Standards for Delimitation in East China Sea, and Positions Taken by Japan and China

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994, gives a costal state “sovereign rights” to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil located 200 nautical miles (about 370 kilometers) from the baselines from which the breadth of its territorial sea is measured (Article 56). A water area subject to the coastal state’s sovereign rights is called an exclusive economic zone or EEZ.

In addition to the EEZ, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (Article 76) has defined the continental shelf of a coastal state as “the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.”

While the definition adopts two standards — configuration of the seabed and distance — for the continental shelf, the convention stipulates that a coastal state has sovereign rights to explore and exploit the seabed at least 200 nautical miles from the baselines as its continental shelf in disregard of its configuration.

As in the case of Japan and China having the East China Sea between them, the convention sets forth principles for the delimitation of the EEZ “between States with opposite or adjacent coasts” in Article 74 and of the continental shelf in Article 83, stating merely in both clauses that the delimitation shall be “effectuated by agreement on the basis of international law, as referred to in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, in order to achieve an equitable solution.” The convention offers no specific points to note or procedures for delimitation in a manner that can achieve an equitable solution for such states.

For the delimitation of EEZs or continental shelves, therefore, criteria, factors to take into account and other related issues must be elicited from rulings on various past delimitation disputes by the ICJ and the International Court of Arbitration.

As far as maritime delimitation disputes between states with opposite coasts, like Japan and China, are concerned, the ICJ rendered decisions on the U.S.-Canada dispute in the Gulf of Maine Area in 1984, the Libya-Malta continental shelf case in 1985, the Jan Mayen case in 1993, the Qatar-Bahrain case in 2001, and the Romania-Ukraine case in 2009.

In ruling on all these cases, the ICJ stressed an equitable solution, designating a median line, or an equal distance from two or more coastal states’ baselines, as a favorable standard for reaching such a solution. Specifically, an equidistant line was drawn as a provisional boundary and then moved by taking related elements (such as the presence of small islands, the length of coastal lines and fishery interests) into account to decide on a final delimitation.

Given such a trend in international law, both Japan and China decided on new domestic laws regarding the EEZ and continental shelf.

Japan’s “Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf,” which was put into force in July 1996, stipulates that the breadth of the EEZ and of the continental shelf between Japan and a country with an opposite coast is basically up to a median line, or an equidistant line from the two countries’ baselines. If the two countries agree on a new delimitation in place of the median line, the breadth moves to a line agreed upon between them, according to the law.

The rule by the Japanese government is in line with the above-mentioned rulings by the ICJ and assumes that the equidistant line between Japan and China will serve as the two countries’ boundary until bilateral delimitation negotiations are concluded based on the principle of an equitable solution. Under this domestic law, the Japanese government is currently exercising its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the seabed, its subsoil and waters superjacent to the seabed east of the equidistant line in the East China Sea.

In contrast, the “law for the People’s Republic of China’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” enacted in 1998, defines China’s continental shelf as being outside its territorial sea and as the area throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory, which extends to the seabed and its subsoil in the outer edge of the margin of the continental shelf. Assuming a stance based on this “natural prolongation,” China claims that its continental shelf extends to the outer edge of the continental margin beyond 200 nautical miles from its costal baselines.

As far as the East China Sea is concerned, China considers the Okinawa Trough, located just west of the main island of Okinawa, as being in the margin of the continental shelf, claiming that the entire seabed west of the Okinawa Trough is on China’s continental shelf.

The claim postulates that the Senkaku Islands, located between the Okinawa Trough and China’s coastal line, are not Japanese territory or the base point of Japan’s EEZ and continental shelf.

It is difficult to justify the Chinese stance from past rulings by the ICJ over delimitation disputes between states with opposite coasts. From the beginning, it is questionable in light of provisions in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The convention definitely heeds the principle of natural prolongation. According to Paragraph 4 of Article 76, natural prolongation and geological factors apply to the delimitation of a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines.

But Paragraph 10 of Article 76 stipulates that the provisions in the article are “without prejudice to the question of delimitation of the continental shelf between States with opposite or adjacent coasts.”

While the acquisition of sovereign rights over a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles requires approval from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Article 9 of Annex II to the convention, which sets forth the establishment of the commission, says, “The actions of the Commission shall not prejudice matters relating to delimitation of boundaries between States with opposite or adjacent coasts.”

In the delimitation of a continental shelf between states with opposite coasts, therefore, the convention does not permit one of the states to unilaterally apply the principle of natural prolongation.

While China emphasizes the principle of natural prolongation for the East China Sea, it settled its maritime delimitation dispute with Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin on the basis of an equitable solution without applying the principle of prolongation, agreeing to treat the line which divides the gulf into two as their boundary. For other delimitation issues, therefore, the Chinese government did not adhere to the principle of natural prolongation but resorted to delimitations based on the principle of equitableness.

The Japanese and Chinese governments must delimit their boundary in the East China Sea in a matter that leads to an equitable solution. It is needless to reiterate that international law will be the basis of such a solution. For the East China Sea, however, the Chinese government has maintained assertions contrary to past rulings by the ICJ, the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the means it has adopted in settling delimitation disputes with other countries.

As a result, negotiations for delimitation in the East China Sea have been put in a difficult position, as mentioned below.

3. Attempts to Establish Order in East China Sea

Unless the Japanese and Chinese governments submit their delimitation dispute in the East China Sea to the ICJ, they must draw a conclusion through diplomatic negotiations in a manner that will reach an equitable solution based on Articles 74 and 83 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The final delimitation of the boundary between Japan and China will take effect only after the two countries have reached an agreement through negotiations.

The two countries have since 1998 established the “Consultations on Issues Related to the Law of the Sea” and had many other occasions for dialogue to seek such an agreement.

But delimitation negotiations have become bogged down as China has shown no intention of reviewing its claim to the Senkaku Islands, which was formulated without due legal procedures during the Cultural Revolution, and has kept opposing the application of delimitation methods, based on the trend of international law, to the East China Sea.

In the meantime, various problems have occurred in the East China Sea, such as those related to fishing operations, ocean surveys, development of seabed resources and passage of warships. The Japanese and Chinese governments have come to address these problems without the delimitation of a boundary between them.

For fishing operations, Japan and China concluded a fishery agreement in 1975. But the two countries began new negotiations in 1996 due to the introduction of EEZs, leading to the effectuation in 2000 of a new fishery accord designed to ease bilateral delimitation disputes by setting provisional waters.

But the new accord covers only waters north of 27 degrees north latitude and does not apply to waters south of that latitude, which include the sea around the Nansei Islands (in which the Okinawa Islands and Senkaku Islands are included). In the absence of specific rules shared by Japan and China for waters south of 27 degrees north latitude, Chinese fishing boats have come to operate within Japan-claimed EEZ and territorial sea, leading to a series of conflicts between Chinese fishing vessels and patrol boats of the Japan Coast Guard.

There were concerns within Japan from that time on that these skirmishes could raise major diplomatic tensions. This very thing happened when a Chinese fishing trawler deliberately collided with a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat in Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkakus in September 2010, the incident developed into a serious problem that considerably affected not only the Sino-Japanese relationship but also international relations in the whole of the Asia-Pacific region.

When a costal state conducts a scientific marine research project in another coastal state’s EEZ and on its continental shelf, it must gain consent from the other state in advance, according to Article 246 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since 1995, however, China has repeatedly conducted marine research without advance applications in waters on Japan’s territorial side of the equidistant line between the two countries in the East China Sea.

As Chinese surveillance ships, such as the Haibing-723 and Dongdiao-232, dispatched by the People’s Liberation Army, began what appeared to be intelligence-gathering activities in waters near the Japanese archipelago after 2000, the Japanese government took marine research activities seriously and called on the Chinese government to work out a framework for giving advance notice.

In February 2001, Japan and China agreed on the “Framework of Mutual Prior Notification for Marine Research Activities” under which either of the two countries notifies the other before undertaking “scientific marine research” in the other’s adjacent waters. Although the framework did not completely resolve problems related to marine research, it was epoch making because for the first time Japan and China shared a set of rules for marine research in the East China Sea.

From the early 1990s, the Chinese government not only began marine research but also put the development of seabed materials into high gear. As a result, China has successively built facilities for the mining of seabed resources on the Chinese side of the equidistant median line between the two countries. This policy reflects a steep increase in demand for energy in Shanghai and other places in China’s coastal areas.

As the problem of energy in China’s coastal areas, in which a large number of Japanese companies are operating, means a great deal to the Japanese economy, the Export-Import Bank of Japan provided 120 million dollars to the Pinghu gas field (located 70 km west of the median line), which was completed in 1998. Japan supported China’s natural gas development project in this field to ease China’s tight energy situation.

But relations between Japan and China over the East China Sea became increasingly antagonistic when preparations began for drilling in the Chunxiao oil and gas field (known as the Shirakaba field in Japan), located only about 5 km west of the equidistant median line. As the underground structure of Chunxiao as well as other oil and gas fields possibly extended into the Japanese side beyond the median line, Japan voiced its concerns and asked China to provide information on the subsurface structure. But China was reluctant to provide such information and instead stepped up preparations for exploitation.

Amid friction between Japan and China over the development of the Chunxiao oil and gas field coming into the open, the two countries began the “Consultations Concerning the East China Sea and Other Matters” (Japan-China gas talks) in October 2004. During the process of negotiations, the two governments sought a project for joint development of seabed resources in a bid to ease their confrontation.

In the Japan-China gas talks, the governments agreed to resolve their dispute through joint development, but negotiations for specific issues for joint development ran into rough waters. In the meantime, warships of the People’s Liberation Army cruised near the Chunxiao oil and gas field twice in 2005, prompting Japanese Cabinet ministers and news media to criticize the act as a threat. The Japanese government again expressed its concern to the Chinese government.

Press reports had it in September 2005 that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were studying a defense system in anticipation of China’s invasion of the Senkaku Islands. Friction between Japan and China over the East China Sea was thus gradually taking on the aspect of a military confrontation.

Against the backdrop of these developments, the joint exploitation of the East China Sea was positioned as an important task for a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests, and a specific framework for development was finally set in June 2008 following the two countries’ summit diplomacy.

In the “Cooperation between Japan and China in the East China Sea” statement jointly announced by the two governments, Japan and China said they had agreed to “conduct cooperation in the transitional period prior to delimitation without prejudicing their respective legal positions.”

Based on the agreement, the two governments announced their understandings on the joint development of the East China Sea and on the development of the Chunxiao oil and gas field.

The former understanding offered specific latitudes and longitudes for the joint development, while the latter understanding stated that Chinese enterprises welcome the participation of Japanese legal entities in the development of the existing oil and gas field in Shirakaba (Chunxiao in Chinese) in accordance with the relevant laws of China governing cooperation with foreign enterprises in the exploration and exploitation of offshore petroleum resources.

As the announced block for joint development of the East China Sea includes the seabed west of the Okinawa Trough, it was beyond the equidistant median line between Japan and China.

As the understanding on the Chunxiao field referred to its development “in accordance with the relevant laws of China,” the announcement by both Japan and China indicated that there had been an agreement on its foundation.

But given the fact that Japan and China have yet to conclude delimitation negotiations, the foundation of understanding must be nothing other than the equidistant median line authorized as a valid provisional border by international law.

Judging from these two factors, the “Cooperation between Japan and China in the East China Sea” testified to the Japanese and Chinese governments’ agreement to promote negotiations and cooperation for the joint development of the East China Sea in accordance with international standard rules. The accord thus can be taken as a specific achievement stemming from the strategic mutually beneficial relationship.

But work to process the joint development plan into a specific deal failed to move forward smoothly, as China subsequently assumed a passive stance on it. As one alleged reason for China’s change of stance, an “interest group” consisting of some resources development and other businesses wishing to expand their interests in the exploitation of marine resources strongly opposed the joint development in a manner linked to xenophobic nationalism.

In December 2008, furthermore, vessels of the China Marine Surveillance Headquarters under the State Oceanic Administration, which is seeking to monopolize rights for oceanic administration in China, sailed for several hours within Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, emphasizing the expansion of China’s marine interests and opposition to Japan.

An analysis of the domestic situation in China at that time indicates the intrusion by the Chinese ships was not based on instructions by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party but was most likely initiated by the China Marine Surveillance Headquarters alone. In any case, it was a purposefully obstructive act against the gathering momentum toward mutual cooperation between Japan and China.

After the announcement of the joint development plan, the Japanese government repeatedly urged China to promptly put the project into practice. But as China was reluctant to give the go-ahead, the joint development remained pending even in 2010.

It was under these circumstances that a Chinese fishing trawler deliberately collided with a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat in waters near the Senkakus in September 2010. The incident dragged the joint development process onto a reef and relations between Japan and China reentered a phase of confrontation. The strategic mutually beneficial relationship has come to a crucial stage.

4. Impact of Ship Collision Incident near Senkakus

The captain of the Chinese fishing vessel, was arrested by the Japanese police authorities for allegedly obstructing official duties after steering his ship into a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat twice. Seeing the captain’s act as no problem, the Chinese government chose to interpret his arrest as a Japanese challenge to Chinese sovereignty and demanded his unconditional release.

A problem of this kind between Japan and China was highly predictable. To address it, government leaders of the two countries should have maintained frequent mutual visits and expanded the channels of dialogue, and the two governments should have worked to prevent the resultant confusion from affecting economic and cultural exchanges.

In other words, Japan and China needed to make their strategic mutually beneficial relationship look rock-solid.

But the Chinese government urged the Japanese government to forgive crimes committed by its nationals, a demand unthinkable for a country governed by law. When the Japanese government declined to comply, the Chinese government declared it would suspend exchanges of leaders between the two countries — the foundation of a strategic mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, China unilaterally closed the channels of dialogue between leaders when they were most needed.

Although this action by China alone was sufficient to deepen the problem, the Chinese government also exerted pressure on Japan in a variety of forms, such as suspending various negotiations and exchanges including those of young people, restrictions on Chinese tourists’ visit to Japan, detaining Fujita Corp. officials visiting China for construction of facilities to dispose of chemical weapons abandoned by the Japanese military during World War II, and banning exports of rare earths to Japan.

In contrast with the Chinese government’s resorting to short-sighted brinkmanship that seemingly stopped at nothing, the Japanese government took no retaliatory action and returned all crew members except the captain, along with the fishing boat, to China, while calling for the Chinese government to react calmly.

The stance taken by the Japanese government could be interpreted as representing the moderate policy toward China adopted by the Democratic Party of Japan, which took over power from the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009. At the same time, it could be taken as showing the DPJ government’s failure to adopt effective measures to deal with China due to a lack of diplomatic expertise.

As some Japanese nationals were effectively taken hostage in China, other Japanese were also exposed to the risk of being detained for whatever reason. Under these circumstances, Japanese judicial authorities then made an unusual decision to release the captain without indictment on the grounds of “taking into account the safety of Japanese nationals and the future relationship between Japan and China.” The Japanese decision was taken as a diplomatic victory in China but the Chinese government would later pay a bigger diplomatic price.

China’s deteriorating international image was one such price. News media not only in Japan and but also in many other countries carried a series of stories criticizing China’s noticeably adversarial stance over the ship collision case as greatly damaging its credibility as a responsible stakeholder in international society.

The collision incident increased doubts about the credibility of the “peaceful development” policy pursued by the administration of President Hu Jintao. Along with the South China Sea problem, the collision case added fuel to arguments linking China’s foreign policy to those of Germany and Japan in the 1930s.

In addition, China’s use of economic relations with other countries and human exchanges for diplomatic retaliation made other countries recognize the contradiction that the risk of their sovereignty, security, economy and the human rights of their peoples being threatened by China increases as their relations with China deepen. Arguments that foreign investments and procurement of capital should not be concentrated in China as risk hedges gathered more steam in countries such as Japan and the United States.

The Chinese government’s response to the ship collision incident not only was criticized by other countries but also affected the diplomacy of Japan, the United States and member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

In Japan, before the incident, there were DPJ lawmakers who regarded the strategic mutually beneficial relationship between Japan and China as equally important as the Japan-U.S. alliance. But this feeling has subsided within the DPJ since the incident, while the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance has been reconfirmed.

The incident has also led the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama to state clearly that the Japan-U.S security treaty covers the Senkaku Islands. In other words, the incident has put the Japan-U.S. relationship, which had become awkward because of such problems as relations regarding the U.S. Marine Futenma air station in Okinawa Prefecture, on the path toward normalization and reinforced the Japan-U.S. alliance.

As a result, the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States by exploiting the strategic mutually beneficial relationship with Japan has suffered a great setback.

ASEAN members became highly wary of China when it was revealed in July 2010 that China had told the United States in March that year of its policy to position the South China Sea as one of its “core interests” comparable with Tibet and Taiwan. But they became even warier following the ship collision incident and began seeking to reinforce their relations with the United States, which then clarified its intention to contribute positively to stability in the South China Sea.

In short, the ship collision incident, along with the South China Sea problem, provided the United States with opportunities to reassert its presence in the Asia-Pacific region and put China’s partnership diplomacy under trial. The outcome was another diplomatic loss the Chinese government could have avoided if it had responded to the ship collision case in a reasonable manner.

Major changes in the military balance in the East China Sea have also become unavoidable as a result of the incident.

Japan’s new National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Buildup Program, adopted by the Cabinet in December 2010, about three months after the incident, described China’s military activities as a “matter of concern for the region and the international community.” Based on the new defense policy, focused on the “safety of coastal and air areas” surrounding Japan and “responses to attacks on small islands,” Japan began full-scale efforts to reinforce the defense of the Nansei Islands including the Senkakus.

Needless to say, the ship collision incident is not the only reason for the changes in Japan’s defense policy. As already mentioned, the Japanese government has become wary of activities by ships of the People’s Liberation Army in waters around Japan since 2000.

The Japanese government and people were greatly shocked in November 2004 when a nuclear submarine of the People’s Liberation Army cruised underwater between Miyako Island and Ishigaki Island in Japan’s territorial seas in violation of Article 20 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires submarines to navigate on the surface and show their flags in the territorial seas of other countries.

In April 2010, furthermore, a ship-based helicopter from the People’s Liberation Army’s naval fleet cruising in waters near the mainland of Okinawa flew twice at an unusually close distance to a destroyer of the Japanese Maritime Defense Force, while one of its ships directed its rapid-fire guns at Japanese patrol aircraft.

The incidents, which exacerbated tensions in waters around the Nansei Islands, deepened the Japanese government’s distrust and wariness of the Chinese military.

China’s military mainly has a possible contingency in Taiwan in mind when conducting its activities around the Nansei Islands. It is stepping up intelligence-gathering activities and military drills to establish a system to intercept a U.S. fleet, which would be highly likely to sail toward the Taiwan Straits in such an event.

These activities by China are also considered to be countermeasures against the U.S. military that have continued information gathering and drills near Chinese waters.

In any case, advances by Chinese military vessels into waters around the Nansei Islands where many bases of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are located are one important reason for Japan to step up its defense posture for the Nansei Islands. There is no denying that the security situation against the backdrop of the Taiwan problem has heightened tensions in the East China Sea between Japan and China and erected hurdles against delimitation negotiations and joint development.

With the stated target of making the East China Sea into a “sea of peace, cooperation and friendship,” the strategic mutually beneficial relationship between Japan and China was expected to serve as a framework to reduce tensions in the East China Sea. But the problems caused by the Chinese military in waters near Okinawa Prefecture in April 2010 and the ship collision incident near the Senkakus in September that year greatly undermined Japan’s hope for such a possibility and are believed to have prompted Japan to launch an earnest defense buildup program, with particular weight given to the Nansei Islands.

As a result, the Chinese military now faces a new problem, namely the reinforced Japanese Self-Defense Forces focusing on the defense of the Nansei Islands and the East China Sea, as well as the possibility of the U.S. Navy’s intervention in the event of an emergency in Taiwan. In other words, the corridor for the U.S. Navy’s navigation toward the Taiwan Straits will undoubtedly be reinforced by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. A change of this kind may have a considerable impact on the future of the Taiwan issue.

Generally speaking, the ship collision incident could have been brushed aside as a personal crime committed by the captain of a Chinese fishing boat. But it eventually developed into a case that has changed the direction of international politics in the Asia-Pacific region in a manner the Chinese Communist Party wanted to avoid as much as possible.

In Conclusion

Work launched by the Japanese and Chinese governments at the end of 2006 to realize a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests testifies that the two countries can repair and develop their relations based on reason and without being swept away by torrents of emotion, as demonstrated by the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1972. While calling on Japan to pay due heed to its past history, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have carried out specific measures to change the Chinese public’s widespread sentiment about Japan, bound by the negative image of “militarism,” toward more objective and scientific views.

Japanese Cabinets since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s in 2006-2007 have show a positive stance on creating a relationship of co-existence and co-prosperity between Japan and China, regardless of differences in their political systems and sense of values, by refraining from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

Relations between Japan and China have seen tangible achievements in cooperation across a wide range of areas based on careful attention. But why have they been shaken so much as the result of an incident caused by a single fishing boat? While there are various arguments to explain it in Japan, it is undeniable that the method of governance in China greatly contributed to this development.

Since the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to improve relations with industrialized democratic countries. At the same time, however, anachronistic nationalism, including the “memory” of Chinese people humiliated by developed countries, has been cultivated within China through mass media and education. This approach is aimed at instilling a sense of solidarity into Chinese society beyond social disparities and classes in order to stabilize the nation’s single-party rule, which is full of contradictions.

Lopsided images about Japan and the United States, offered to the public in the process, have nurtured excessive anti-Japan and anti-U.S. sentiments, which have made it difficult for the Chinese government to maintain stable and consistent cooperative relations with either country from rational and reasonable standpoints.

As the seeds of nationalism, planted by the Chinese Communist Party, have grown large, diplomatic policy options have become narrower for the Chinese government, which thus tends to become rigid in its diplomacy. This diplomatic stance has worsened public sentiment about China in Japan and the United States and prompted the two countries to reinforce their alliance. It has become difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to create international situations in its favor.

The Chinese leadership under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao appears to be trying to pull itself out of this dilemma. But since this effort hasn’t matured, the leadership still seems to maintain the conventional behavior of assuming a tough stance on Japan, when one problem or another occurs in relations with Tokyo, to dodge criticism from the public and within the party before launching gradual fence-mending efforts.

This behavior is surely eating into the foundation of relations between Japan and China. While the Japanese government has shown a positive stance on establishment of stable relations with China by exercising prudence over the Yasukuni issue, the Chinese government’s brinkmanship diplomacy since September 2010, improper for a superpower, has had a serious impact on public sentiment toward China in Japan, which had been showing signs of improvement until recently.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet Office in December 2010, only 20% of Japanese people felt friendly toward China, down from 38.5% in 2009, while 77.8% of the respondents said they did not feel friendly toward China.

As far as survey findings are concerned, relations between Japan and China, which had been moving gradually toward “spring” since the end of 2006, seem to have returned to the period of “severe winter.”

Future relations between Japan and China will vary greatly depending on how Japanese and Chinese leaders recognize this grim reality and on the postures they adopt to build bilateral relations based on strategic viewpoints.


Translation of pages 459 to 475 from “Nitchu Kankei Shi (History of Japan-China Relations) 1972-2012″ I. Politics Chapter 15 (Editors: Akio Takaraha and Ryuji Hattori, University of Tokyo Press, September 2012)”