Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sino-Japan ties strained over rocky isles

Over the last few weeks China and Japan have been at loggerheads over disputed islands off the coast of Taiwan. It has strained relations between the two countries. But it is only the latest in a series of disputes China has become embroiled in recent years. Issues surrounding Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan have raised temperatures in Beijing. Trade disputes have upset relations between China and the west. And of course issues of human rights and censorship have rarely gone off the boil. But as China grows in strength it is not so easy to argue with this waking dragon.

On 7 September a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the islands. The collisions occurred after the Japanese Coast Guard ordered the trawler to stop fishing. After the collisions, Japanese sailors boarded the Chinese vessel and arrested the captain Zhan Qixiong. There then followed a series of strongly worded statements from China warning of "further measures" if the Chinese skipper was not released. Premier Wen Jiabao said that Japan "should take all the responsibility of possible consequences" but details of how China would react were not explicitly revealed [Xinhua]. Beijing were certainly unhappy and even called off talks scheduled for the UN summit [Xinhua]. Meanwhile on the streets of Beijing the issue rattled the nationalists. There were protests calling for the boycott of Japanese products and the Internet was alive with vitriol aimed at Japan. Although it never quite came to blows the media certainly revelled in the latest souring of relations between Japan and China. [Next Media Animation], based in Taiwan, aired a video depicted a virtual fight between a Ninja warrior and a panda [YouTube].

But what is the fuss all about? China insists the islands are theirs. "The Diaoyu Islands have been Chinese territory since the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Maps printed in Japan in 1783 and 1785 that marked out the boundary of the Ryukyu Kingdom show that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to China," a statement on Xinhua said. In fact even the name is disputed. Japan refers to the uninhabited land masses as the Senkaku Islands [尖��� Senkaku Shotō], while China refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands [钓鱼台群岛 / Diàoyútái Qúndǎo]. They are also called the Pinnacle Islands on some maps. All Chinese media will refer to them as the Diaoyu Islands, but most international media refer to the small rocks by the Japanese name. 

There are about 8 small rocks making up the islands, the largest only 4.32 km2. They have been controlled and administered by Japan since 1895, but are claimed by both the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China as part of Taiwan Province,Toucheng Township in Yilan County since 1971. The United States controlled the islands as part of its occupation of Okinawa from 1945 to 1972.

In what has been claimed as evidence in support of China's claim to the islands, the People's Daily reported on a Japanese map dating from 1950 which showed "that Japan's sovereignty scope and territorial waters does not include the Diaoyu Islands in the Japanese demarcation line."

It is not the first time a map has been presented as evidence however. A classified PRC government map from 1969 has been revealed which refers to the "Senkaku islands" as Japanese territory. 

Discovery and the mapping of the islands has been contended by both sides. Nonetheless Japan points to the fact that they were not inhabited until 1895 and that several months before the cession of Taiwan to Japan by the Qing Dynasty, Japan had already claimed and incorporated the islands into Japanese territory. As a result, the islands remained Japanese territory and would not be affected by the retro-cession of Taiwan in 1945. Though the islands were controlled by the United States as an occupying power between 1945 and 1972, Japan has since 1972 exercised administration over the islands. According to the Japanese government, the PRC and ROC (Taiwan) have come to claim the sovereignty since a submarine oil field was discovered near these islands. The discovery of oil that is seen by some to be behind the continued dispute over ownership [Wikipedia / Island dispute / BBC-Q&A].

In 1978 Japan established official relations with China and the two governments agreed to shelve the issue concerning the islands. But in recent years the dispute has soured. In October 2006 a group of activists from Hong Kong, the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, including Tsang Kin Shing and several members of the April Fifth Action, approached the islands in order to show the support for Chinese claims to the islands. However, they were stopped from landing on the islands by the Japan Coast Guard.

In 2008 two PLAAF J-10A multi-role fighters intercepted a Japanese P-3C anti-submarine and reconnaissance airplane that was flying closely above the Senkaku Islands. The two J-10 fighters were suspected of protecting Chinese nuclear submarines that were operating in that area. Later in the same year two Chinese coast guard vessels started routine patrols within 12 kilometres of the Senkaku Islands in order to declare them as Chinese territory. In October a 270 ton sport fishing vessel Lien Ho of Taiwan suffered a collision with the Japanese patrol vessel Koshiki and subsequently sank while in the disputed territorial waters claimed by Japan and Taiwan. The Taiwanese crew who were aboard the vessel claimed that the larger Japanese frigate deliberately crashed into them. In 2009 two Chinese PLAAF J-10A fighters intercepted three Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2 fighters flying close to the Senkaku Islands, and locked their missiles onto the Japanese fighters. After a three minute stand-off, the Japanese fighters returned to Japanese air space. The Japanese government stated it was an act of provocation.

The latest spat occurred after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the islands. The collisions happened after the Japanese Coast Guard ordered the trawler to stop fishing. After the collisions, Japanese sailors boarded the Chinese vessel and arrested the captain Zhan Qixiong. It was to be the most serious diplomatic incident in the history of the islands with China blocking rare earth minerals exports to Japan and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao threatening further action if the captain of the Chinese fishing trawler was not released.

This week Japan eventually relented to demands for Zhan Qixiong's release. Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had urged the two sides to settle the issue before it had a long-term impact on the region. But even after the fisherman's release China continued to issue demands for an apology and compensation. 

"This was an action that gravely violated Chinese sovereignty and the human rights of a Chinese citizen, and the Chinese government strongly protests," said a foreign ministry statement. "It is unlawful and invalid for Japan to detain and investigate the boat captain and to take any legal measures against him." [BBC]

The issue has fallen from the main news agenda in the west, though it remains a top item across Asia. The item is top on CCTV News which refer to official statements that the detention of the fishermen was "unlawful and invalid". Japanese Premier Naoto Kan has meanwhile attempted to downplay the incident saying that Japan and China were "important neighbours" and that they needed to build ties. At the same time Japan's foreign ministry has rejected China's demand for an apology and compensation for the arrest and detention of the Chinese fishing boat captain saying such a demand was "not acceptable" [NHK]. There are no existing issues concerning the island and that both countries should work towards "a mutually and strategically beneficial relationship".

The repercussions will be long felt in the region. Beijing has cancelled talks on the oil and gas field issue located between the Senkaku Islands and Japan. Small anti-Japanese protests have been held in several cities across China, and while Chinese media has shied away from publicizing them, anti-Japanese sentiment has grown in parts of the country. China also cancelled a visit by 1,000 Japanese students to the Shanghai Expo and a concert by a top Japanese band was also shelved. The five-member pop group SMAP had been due to perform before some 80,000 fans at the Shanghai World Expo on October 9-10, but a Chinese ticket agency abruptly stopped selling the tickets on Sunday. The group's Japanese agent Johnny & Associates said, "We have decided to postpone the 'We are SMAP!' concerts in Shanghai scheduled for October 9 and 10 after assessing the current situation and taking into consideration the safety of our guests."

The disputes featured at the UN summit too. Barack Obama said it was important for ASEAN countries to resolve such issues. Obama and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a joint statement affirming the importance of maritime security and law, as well as the "peaceful settlement of disputes." The ASEAN group, which includes Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, has been eager for United States to state its position on the issue, and to affirm that it will continue to extend its security umbrella. Vietnam, which may have tangled most often with China on the sovereignty issue, has been most eager for the US statement.

But such statements may unsettle relations between the US and China already at loggerheads over the value of the Chinese currency. The US has continually accused China of undervaluing the Renminbi which makes exports artificially cheap. On Friday a US House of Representatives committee approved a bill that supporters say would address the problem of jobs being lost to China. For years, US workers, businesses and farmers have been held to a competitive disadvantage because of China’s intervention to keep the price of Chinese goods to the US artificially low and of US produced goods to China artificially high,” Democratic Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, said. “The bill will help to provide meaningful relief to those who are harmed by China’s exchange-rate policy.” China has called such action protectionist and will only serve to harm US-China ties [MarketWatch / Telegraph].

This week President Barack Obama pressed China’s Premier Wen Jiabao in a two-hour meeting at the United Nations to increase the yuan’s value. But Wen rejected such proposals saying that a 20% increase in the currency would cause severe job losses and trigger social instability in China. “We cannot imagine how many Chinese factories will go bankrupt, how many Chinese workers will lose their jobs,” he said. 

Companies which do much business in China have also urged caution over raising tariffs. "Provoking tension with our trading partners doesn’t come without costs, and we should choose our battles carefully," Stephanie Lester, vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Wal-Mart, said in a statement. "It makes little sense to enact harmful policies that will spark a bilateral conflict over currency with one of our largest trading partners and fastest growing markets for American exports." [Bloomberg]

China's opening up policy has brought great benefits. It has brought great wealth to China and taken millions out of poverty. It has opened many markets for international companies and there is growing free-trade between China and the world. But as China's strength grows it is also growing more confident in rattling a sabre and rejecting calls for it to play by the same rules. Protectionism, WTO rules, human rights and territorial disputes are likely to be major issues in the future as China becomes a bigger trading partner. As it strengthens its economy, it may also become a difficult giant with which to bargain.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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