Politics, No.4  Dec. 5, 2010


TAHARA SŌICHIRŌ In mid-October, when the Sino-Japanese diplomatic situation finally seemed to be calming down after the September 7 collision of a Chinese trawler into two Japan Coast Guard vessels, large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out in cities around China. Why do you think these protests took place at that time?

MAEHARA SEIJI Reports said that most of the protestors were young people responding to calls on the Internet to take part in the demonstrations, but I can’t really see how that could be the case. I should note that Japan received credible assurances through diplomatic channels that the Chinese government was working to cool off these protests as soon as they began cropping up.

TAHARA Ties between Japan and China seemed recently to be heading toward normalcy. Is there any chance that they could worsen once again?

MAEHARA It’s true that there has been some impact on private-sector exchanges. But I don’t believe the overall trend toward normalized ties is something that will be slowed by these demonstrations.

TAHARA Let me backtrack a bit. The skipper of the Chinese trawler that rammed the JCG patrol vessels was released by the Naha District Public Prosecutors Office, which made no decision on whether to indict him. The Democratic Party of Japan bore the brunt of popular displeasure for letting this happen under its administration. Why was the skipper released like that?

MAEHARA I don’t have anything to add to the official government stance. This was a decision taken independently by the prosecutors.

TAHARA Was this decision a positive step, or on balance was the downside to his release larger?

MAEHARA If you look back through history, you find that there are any number of cases all over the world where a single, isolated incident escalated into an argument between nations or even a war. It goes without saying that our most important task was to do everything possible to ensure that this recent incident wouldn’t turn into that sort of situation. The authorities dealt with the incident calmly and properly in terms of domestic law, but there are certain to be various opinions on the decision the prosecutors reached in the end.

It’s also a fact that we’ve seen negative aspects of the situation dragging on, with China demanding an apology and reparations even after the release of the Chinese skipper. It’s the role of diplomacy to repair these problems and put our relations back in working order.

TAHARA On that diplomatic front, in talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on September 23, you managed to get an American statement that the Senkaku Islands fall within the scope of the Japan-US Security Treaty. It was a big step for the United States to go that far on this topic.

MAEHARA Yes, it was. This time they’ve clearly stated that the Senkakus are under Japanese jurisdiction and are part of the territory covered by the security treaty. The Japanese government has been very heartened by this stance.

TAHARA I think your own abilities played a part here.

MAEHARA No, I wouldn’t say that. But it is true that before leaving for the United States we did a lot of preliminary work to get all the pieces in place.

TAHARA At the end of September, the DPJ’s Hosono Gōshi traveled to Beijing and met with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo. It seems as though China’s stance, which had only hardened following the release of the trawler’s captain, began changing around then.

MAEHARA Hosono had been to China in December 2009, when he was a key liaison for the mission led by Ozawa Ichirō, then secretary general of the DPJ. We were trying to use a number of channels to set up dialogue with China, and he was one of them. One of Hosono’s original goals in going to Beijing appears to have been to help rebuild our ties with the Communist Party of China. The press reported that we had sent him as a “secret envoy,” but this inaccuracy was just the result of some crossed wires.

TAHARA Did you know Hosono was going to meet with Dai Bingguo even before his departure?

MAEHARA Yes, I did.

TAHARA Was there any communication from the Chinese side prompting this visit, or was it purely a Japanese desire to go?

MAEHARA I’m not really in a position to comment on that.

TAHARA Later, on October 5, Prime Minister Kan Naoto met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for around twenty-five minutes on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting held in Brussels. Before leaving for this ASEM session, Kan stated that he had no plans to meet with Wen, right?

MAEHARA The Ministry of Foreign Affairs hadn’t received any request from the prime minister’s office to set up a bilateral summit with China. This wasn’t a meeting that the Foreign Ministry arranged in advance.

TAHARA Which side was more eager to make this talk happen–the Chinese or the Japanese?

MAEHARA I’m sorry, but I have no comment on that either. I will say, though, that in that Brussels meeting, our countries were able to create some momentum toward further efforts to stabilize relations. Right now we’re engaged in hard work to follow up on that momentum.

An Isolated China?

TAHARA As one form of revenge for the Senkaku incident, China halted exports to Japan of rare earth elements, which are vital in manufacturing high-tech products and for other purposes. The Chinese later implemented similar restrictions on exports to Western countries. This has earned them global criticism. It looks like China may be heading for a state of increasing isolation.

MAEHARA In short, I don’t think there’s any chance that China will isolate itself from the rest of the world. The nation has 1.3 billion people and an economy recording sustained growth at a rate close to 10 percent. This year it may overtake Japan to become the world’s number-two economy. It’s also a key presence for the United States, where the question of the yuan’s value is one of the most important topics on the political agenda. But China’s global presence is built on its mutual dependence with the rest of the world in the form of trade. Neither side in this equation will be able to ignore the other for the foreseeable future.

TAHARA I think, though, that global views of China may have changed due to the rare earth export restrictions. People knew that politically the country was a dictatorship of one party with no rivals, but they assumed that the economy, at least, was free. The recent events showed them that this freedom was in name only–that political decisions could still interfere with the economy’s workings.

MAEHARA Well, the political system in China is quite different from those in Japan or the Western countries. I think some nations may have received a fresh reminder of that fact this time around. In any case, though, economic globalization continues unchecked, and if any nation, not just China, wants to play in global markets, it’s going to be measured according to global standards.

With respect to resource issues, there are some matters on which Japan will have to carve out its own position. Rather than depending entirely on China, we’ll have to diversify our sources for the resources we need. I’d say that this is something Japan should have been tackling more seriously well before this latest problem, while the Liberal Democratic Party was still in power. There are other countries, in Central Asia and elsewhere, where these rare earth elements can be found.

TAHARA So in fact, rare earths aren’t all that rare?

MAEHARA Due to its cost advantages, China has been able to virtually monopolize their production so far, but if the flow of Chinese supplies slows down, it will naturally prompt production in other regions. As I see it, the tide is now shifting in this direction.

TAHARA The rare earth export ban was a rather reckless measure on China’s part. In recent years, we’ve seen many cases of the nation throwing its weight around in power plays like this. In March this year, China defined its maritime rights in the South China Sea as a “core national interest,” effectively declaring that “this sea is ours to use as we please.” This sparked a backlash from several ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] members. The Chinese are taking the same position in the East China Sea, as can be seen from their actions in the Senkaku flap. What’s your take on these expansionary policies?

MAEHARA Chinese thinking on the matter aside, there are no territorial disputes with respect to the East China Sea. The Senkaku Islands are Japan’s inherent territory, and this stance will not change. I believe it’s important to act on that conviction going forward, ensuring that we remain in effective control of the islands.

No Barrier to Bilateral Ties

TAHARA Well, that’s the crux of the issue. Japan positions the Senkaku Islands as a purely domestic matter, and China responds by insisting, “No, these are our islands.” So what do we do?

MAEHARA As you know, Japan made the islands part of its territory in a January 1895 cabinet decision. This was after ten years of careful observation to confirm that no people were living there and that the islands were within no other nation’s sphere of influence [a procedure based on international law addressing occupancy]. There’s absolutely no truth to the Chinese claims that we took the territory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.

TAHARA This is true; historical fact doesn’t back that assertion.

MAEHARA So Japan’s claim to the islands was an occupancy recognized under international law. There are absolutely no grounds to deny that the Senkakus are Japanese territory. In fact, it wasn’t until 1971 that China began stressing its own claim to the area, and some believe this was prompted by the discovery of natural gas deposits under the seabed there.

TAHARA I understand all this. At the same time, though, the reality is that China won’t do a 180-degree shift and agree that these islands belong to Japan. In recognition of this, what will Japan be doing from here on out?

MAEHARA It doesn’t matter what China thinks or says. The Japanese position that no territorial dispute exists in the East China Sea will not change. We will continue quietly, surely governing our islands.

TAHARA All right, take for example the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan. These are also ostensibly part of Japanese territory, but today South Korea has effective control of them. Is there a reason that we take a much stronger stance when it comes to the Senkakus? Or to put it another way, why aren’t we pressing our case against Korea?

MAEHARA In the Takeshima case, a number of historical developments have resulted in Korean effective control of the islands. And we certainly aren’t keeping quiet about this–we are stating Japan’s claim to the territory via diplomatic means. The Senkakus, meanwhile, are under our control, and they will stay that way. There’s no room for debate on that matter.

TAHARA But listen, Mr. Maehara. Whether we agree with the statement or not, China is saying that the islands belong to it, and we’ve got a standoff between our countries as a result. Won’t this present a barrier to the improvement of Sino-Japanese ties, as seen so clearly in the recent collision incident?

MAEHARA I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but there is no dispute over the Senkaku Islands. This is an unchanging position on Japan’s part, and it underlies all our diplomatic activities in this area.

TAHARA When Koizumi Jun’ichirō was prime minister [2001-6], there was an incident when seven Chinese nationals landed on the Senkakus. They were apprehended and expelled just two days later. This time, though, the Chinese skipper was held for a considerable period of time, with the prosecutors even extending his detention for an additional ten days. Does this signify that now that the DPJ is in power, it intends to take a stricter approach?

MAEHARA The act of landing on the islands is a breach of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act [and therefore grounds for expulsion from the country]. This time, though, the captain rammed his trawler into the JCG patrol vessels and then tried to flee. This is a clear-cut case of obstruction of government officials in the execution of their duties, and as such it’s a more malicious case.

TAHARA If Chinese fishing vessels encroach in the waters surrounding the Senkakus in the future, is Japan prepared to apprehend them without hesitation?

MAEHARA In serious cases, where official duties are being obstructed, then we will certainly respond in that way.

Taking the Broad Diplomatic Perspective

TAHARA When Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited Japan in 1978, he proposed shelving the Senkaku Islands issue, stating that “future generations will have more wisdom than we do.” What about you and the DPJ administration? While your words may be different, is this the sort of thing you’re implying today as well?

MAEHARA I’m really sorry to repeat myself again and again, but Japan will not bend from its principles. With that fact in mind, the only thing for us to do is to take the high-level view and determine how best to build our mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests with China.

As I noted a moment ago, Japan and China are in a relationship of mutual dependence, particularly when it comes to economic matters. From China’s perspective, Japan is its number-one source of imports, and is second only to the United States as an export destination. For Japan, meanwhile, China is its largest trade partner in terms of both exports and imports. It’s extraordinarily important for the world’s second- and third-largest economies to cooperate dependably with one another. Right now we’ve got to make this recognition the foundation for our efforts to improve bilateral relations.

TAHARA Ideally, both the Chinese and Japanese governments will ignore the little differences, like the Senkakus, and focus on the big similarities, mainly in the economic field. China is making all sorts of statements, but Japan is sticking to its principles. Differences of opinion with respect to territorial issues can be resolved through diplomacy. It’s possible to get along with each other–that’s what you’re saying, right?

MAEHARA That’s what I believe.

TAHARA Next year marks the centennial of the Xinhai Revolution [which brought down the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China], and various commemorative events are being planned all over China. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of this uprising, is hailed as the “father of the Chinese revolution.” As you know, Sun had very deep ties to Japan, having gone into exile here several times. Could he be one theme to build on in shaping the future of Sino-Japanese ties?

MAEHARA Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito feels very strongly that this is the case. In the end, though, the role Japan plays will depend on what decision Prime Minister Kan makes.

TAHARA In closing, I’d like to leave China issues behind and ask you for a quick comment on Japan’s possible participation in the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade scheme. The United States, Australia, and various Southeast Asian nations are involved in negotiations on this scheme, and you’ve shown positive interest in Japan’s participation as well.

MAEHARA Agriculture accounts for just 1.5 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product. Farming is of course important, but as a result of the coddling this sector has enjoyed for years in the form of tariffs and the like, the average age of people engaged in farming has risen to 65.8 years. We’ve got to come up with measures to fundamentally revamp Japanese agriculture, strengthening it from the ground up and putting an environment in place that lets younger people get involved more easily.

The fact of the matter is that if we let things go on as they are now, Japan’s manufacturing industry is going to be unable to compete with its rivals in Korea, which is energetically liberalizing its markets. I feel that being part of the TPP may be Japan’s last chance to reform its structures.

TAHARA I certainly hope you’ll urge Prime Minister Kan to make Japan’s TPP participation a reality.

Translated from “Kongo mo Nippon no genri gensoku o mamoru,” Chūō Kōron, December 2010, pp. 106-11. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [December 2010]