A friend on Twitter asked yesterday if the decision to release the Chinese captain being held for slamming his boat on two Japanese Coast Guard ships was really made by the Okinawan prosecutors. I think it is obvious that the answer is no; it was a political decision made to appease China, whose sabre-rattling over the incident has effectively frozen Sino-Japanese relationship for the first time in five years. (Update: Yomiuri Shinbun source confirms in a Sept. 26 report that the decision came not from Okinawa but from Tokyo)
The incident occured on September 7, when Zhan Qixiong’s fishing trawler were ordered to stop by two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in the waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands. Instead of stopping, the captain allegedly rammed his trawler to the patrol boats, prompting the Coast Guard to arrest him and turn him over to Japanese prosecutors. In response, the Chinese government condemned the arrest as an infringement on Chinese sovereignty and called on Japan to “make a political decision” of releasing Zhan. Japan, which occupies and administers the Senkakus, countered that the incident must be approached in accordance with its domestic laws.
What then followed was a series of surprisingly hawkish diplomatic maneuvers from Beijing. It cancelled talks on joint-exploration proposals on the gas fields of the East China Sea, scrapped high level visits to and from Japan and asked travel agencies to avoid soliciting customers for their Japan tours. In New York, Premier Wen Jiabao cancelled the customary bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan in the sidelines of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and, in a speech before a group of Chinese-Americans, warned Japan of “consequences” unless it releases the Chinese captain.
On Thursday, Chinese customs officials restricted Japan-bound rare earths materials, which are needed to manufacture, among other things, hybrid cars, computers and guided missiles. While it is obvious that the customs restrictions on these exports are connected to the Senkaku dispute, the Chinese government denied that it had imposed a trade sanction against Japan because doing so would be against the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In explaining China’s hawkish reactions, most analysts point to the usual suspect: Chinese nationalism. Indeed, my (limited) understanding of the political dynamics in the People’s Republic tells me that nationalism is one of the two ultimate support pillars of the present regime in Beijing, the other being economic development. These two pillars make the Chinese people unite behind the regime and in the process ignore its political and human rights abuses. It is therefore safe to say that it will always be in the interest of the Chinese government to cater to its people’s nationalism. However, it must be pointed out that while there were serious manifestations of nationalist sentiments (mostly on-line) over the Senkaku row, they certainly did not rival the 2005 anti-Japan protests against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni war memorial. In fact, given their scope, it is even possible to suggest that these nationalist manifestations were state-encouraged rather than spontaneous.
China’s disproportionate maneuvers against Japan undid five years of progress in Sino-Japanese relations, something both Tokyo and Beijing worked hard to achieve. Shelving these gains over an errant Chinese fishing boat captain could not have been caused– at the very least not solely– by these so-called manifestations of nationalism on the part of ordinary Chinese citizens. Most likely, the Chinese government perceived the new government in Tokyo as inexperienced and saw that Japan’s security ties with the United States is strained due to the recent Okinawa base row and that, therefore, this incident is an auspicious opportunity for China to reassert its sovereignty over the Senkakus even at the expense of recent improvements in its ties with Tokyo.
But whatever the reasons behind it, China’s sabre-rattling represents a right-ward shift in Beijing’s attitude with regards to its relations with Japan. And this in turn is part of an over-all right-ward shift in Beijing’s attitude vis a vis the whole Asia-Pacific region. In a recent post, China’s Credible Chalenge, I wrote that China’s over-all actions throughout the region have recently been characterized with growing confidence coupled with increasing assertiveness, most especially in the disputed areas in the South China and East China seas. Going against the spirit of the ASEAN-sponsored 2002 Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, for example, the Chinese government has very recently classified the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands as “core interests”, a language that had traditionally been reserved for Tibet and Taiwan.
This shift in policy can probably be explained by recent reports showing that the generals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have re-asserted their influence in China’s policy-making process. For the most part since the Tianamen Square massacre, the PLA had generally abdicated much of its influence to civilian leaders of the Communist Party. But when President Hu Jintao courted the support of the PLA generals to win his 2004 internal power struggle with former president Jiang Zemin, his government became beholden to the military, whch in turn moved to re-establish itself as a major policy-making actor in Beijing. For a more detailed account of this rise of the military, see the essay The Remilitarization of Beijing by long-time China watcher Gordon Chang on The Diplomat.
In the said essay, Chang pointed out four things that indicate that senior military officers are gaining power in the Chinese capital: “First, their hawkish views are in fact becoming the policy of the country. Second, there are too many public reminders to the military that ‘the Party controls the gun’ to think this hasn’t become an issue. Third, splits in the run up to the 18th Party Congress, to be held in late 2012, appear to be once again giving leverage to the military as they did a half decade ago. As Hu and his rivals struggle over various matters—especially the slate of candidates to take over the country in 2012—the military is bound to consolidate its recent gains and seek even more control over the country’s finances and external policies. Fourth, although Hu has said that increases in military spending should be commensurate with the growth of the economy, it appears the PLA’s budget hikes have outpaced economic growth in recent years.”
It is likely that Japan missed the changes in the opaque policy-making structure in the Chinese capital. If not, then it made a mistake by arresting Zhan and turning him over to the Okinawan prosecutors instead of just immediately deporting him. This is because it would be naïve for Japan to believe that a Chinese government that is under the influence of hawkish military officers would shelve national pride and react to the situation calmly.
In 2006, when Hong Kong activists went to the Senkaku to protest Japan’s occupation of the islands and were intercepted by the Japanese Coast Guard, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a China hawk, decided to deport the activists instead of arresting them, thereby sidelining Japan’s local laws in favor of a larger concern: stability in the East China Sea. That decision prevented an deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations, which at that time had already been in an all-time low due to Koizumi’s visits to a Shinto war shrine in Tokyo that honors Japanese war criminals. Had the current Japanese government seen the Zhang incident the way Koizumi saw the 2006 incident, things would have been different; the hawks in Beijing would not have been given the chance to flex some muscles. Sadly, Tokyo failed to see the matter from a broader perspective. To be fair, however, the reason why Japan failed to appreciate these important factors is because there was a power vacuum in Tokyo due to intense campaigning and the election for the country’s premiership during the first two weeks of September.
Having said these, I think Japan’s real bungle is its decision to succumb too soon to China’s pressure by releasing the Chinese captain when it clearly didn’t have to.
Firstly, while they are of serious concern, the cards China played were really of very little consequence to Japan. In fact, the cancellation of diplomatic and cultural exchanges and the saber-rattling by Chinese leaders hurt China more as these only succeed in helping Japan win in the world court of public opinion.
It appears that China’s decision to impose an unofficial embargo on rare earth materials to Japan was already among the last non-military cards Beijing could use. But even this would not have hurt Japan very much. This is because, firstly, Japan has a large stockpile of rare earth materials that it has built over the years and that; secondly, China is not the sole producer of these materials. On the contrary, this unofficial embargo could even backfire on China as it could in the long run encourage the United States to re-start mining these materials to cater to the lucrative Japanese market, thereby hurting the Chinese rare earth mining industry.
Secondly, the Japanese government has been successful in getting the United States to categorically state that the Senkaku Islands “are covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty that allows Washington to retaliate against a military strike on Japanese territory,” something then President Fidel V. Ramos of the Philippines, the other American treaty ally in Asia, tried but failed to do when his country faced Chinese intrusion in the Mischief Reef during the 1990s. This, coupled with the fact that the Japanese Naval Self-Defense Force is still bigger and more powerful than the Chinese PLA Navy,would have been an effective deterrence to whatever “consequences” Wen warned Japan about.
It is clear that Japan has more cards to play in this dispute. Had Japan played these cards well, China would have been rendered impotent and the stature of the hawks in Beijing would have been, at the very least, diminished. But by choosing not to play those cards, Japan has in effect validated the policy prescriptions of these hawks.
It might be a bit of a stretch to say that the Japanese government has just made a mini Munich, but we can say that the Japanese decision will be seen in Beijing as a sign of weakness; an incentive to resort again to similar bullying tactics in other areas of contention with Japan in the future. In fact, this early, instead of moving to put a closure to the incident, China has upped the ante by demanding an apology from Japan for its imprisonment of Zhang.
Finally, from a broader and more important perspective, Japan’s bungle only emboldens an increasingly confident China to continue its current course of assertiveness throughout the Far East.