Claims over the Diaoyu Islands, called Senkaku in Japan, have long been a point of contention between China and Japan. While arguments over the islands have been heated, the dispute never elicited any negative effects on bilateral relations between the two Asian countries until the September 7 collision. The incident, where two Japanese patrol boats collided with a Chinese fishing trawler resulting in the detainment of the fishing vessel's crew and captain, led to a rapid deterioration in relations between China and Japan.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan met on the sidelines of the eighth Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels on October 4 to discuss the situation over the contentious islands. The two leaders reached a consensus on maintaining and advancing the "strategic relationship of mutual benefit" between China and Japan and strengthening both governmental and nongovernmental exchanges. They also agreed that the two countries' leaders would hold a formal summit at an appropriate time.
The October meeting, held nearly a month after the collision, sent a positive signal for reconciliation between China and Japan. It showed both Wen and Kan were willing to ensure the overall development of Sino-Japanese relations by seeking common ground while shelving their differences. The two governments now face the major task of preventing the resurgence of tensions and facilitating the restoration of bilateral relations.
Now is the time to reflect upon the drastic deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties in the wake of the boat collision.
From the Chinese perspective, the Chinese Government, which is responsible for safeguarding China's territorial integrity and protecting Chinese citizens, had every reason to demand that Japan free the Chinese fishing boat and its crew. Since the Japanese reacted harshly toward China's legitimate demands, China should further clarify its stand, and learn to conduct public diplomacy on sensitive issues like the Diaoyu Islands to gain the trust and understanding of the general Japanese public.
But looking back at the incident, we find that systemic flaws in Japan's decision-making processes are the main reason for the escalation of the disputes.
Japan's decision to detain the Chinese fishing boat and its crew in accordance with domestic law in waters off the Diaoyu Islands, over which both China and Japan claim sovereignty, was a move that would only provoke China into action since the Diaoyu Islands are an integral part of China's territory.
In China's view, the reason why Japan sought to handle the case in accordance with domestic law was that it wanted to demonstrate its administrative rights and law enforcement rights in the Diaoyu Islands and their adjacent waters--and this was simply unacceptable for China. Moreover, a fishing agreement between China and Japan from 1997 says each country shall manage its own boats in disputed waters, and neither shall detain the boats of the other country. It also states that the two countries' vessels shall keep a distance of more than 300 meters. Although the September collision did not occur in the area specified in the fishing agreement, China and Japan should have upheld the basic principles of the agreement.
Japan was surprised by China's quick and strong reaction, which at least indicated its misjudgment of the situation. Due to China's vehement protests, Japanese authorities released the Chinese fishing boat and its 14 crew members on September 13. The captain, however, was still detained.
This could have been due to the party chief election of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). When the collision occurred, the DPJ, which had been in office for only a year, was about to elect a new leader. The upcoming election added to the difficulties in handling the incident. As a result, Japan could have lost the opportunity to ease tensions. After the incident happened, however, both candidates--Kan and Ichiro Ozawa--avoided discussing it in their election campaigns, illustrating the importance both attached to relations with China.
After winning the election on September 14, Kan could have released the Chinese captain before reorganizing the cabinet on September 17 so that the new cabinet could operate without any hindrances. But visiting former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage tried to persuade Japan to adopt a hard-line stance on China on September 15. Four days later, Japan announced it would detain the captain for another 10 days.
The decision led to a series of countermeasures from China. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to meet with Kan on September 21 in New York. He also made strongly worded remarks on the incident while speaking to representatives of overseas Chinese.
The release of the Chinese captain on September 24 helped prevent Sino-Japanese relations from worsening. Japanese prosecutors, however, insisted on handling the case in accordance with Japanese law, while vowing to reserve their right to bring him to court. The move was not only met with Chinese opposition, but also prompted China's Foreign Ministry to demand an apology and compensation from Japan.
A political decision
Most Japanese people did not agree with the government's decision to handle the case through the Japanese legal system. An opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Daily News showed the approval ratings of Kan's cabinet dived from 64 percent in early September to 49 percent in early October. While 87 percent of respondents found the government's announcement that it was the prosecutors' decision to release the Chinese captain unacceptable, 80 percent thought the government should have made the decision itself.
As a matter of fact, the cabinet, which takes charge of Japan's foreign relations, was behind both the detention and the release of the Chinese fishing boat and its crew. The authorities pledged to handle the case according to Japanese law only after the cabinet made its political judgment. Their attempts did not create a judicial precedent for handling similar cases, but they did bring Sino-Japanese relations to a low point. In the end, local prosecutors decided to release the Chinese captain citing concerns for the Sino-Japanese relationship. Kan's cabinet, for its part, gave consent to their decision for political reasons as well. It is therefore clear that the Japanese Government's political concerns led to the release of the Chinese captain.
Kan's administration should not worry about accusations of interfering in judicial affairs. Japanese politics is based on the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers. While the executive should not interfere with the judiciary, the two branches' decisions can sometimes coincide. Kan's administration did not exert any influence over local prosecutors for the release of the Chinese captain. The prosecutors, nevertheless, came up with the same decision as the cabinet. What matters is whether the decision worked, rather than whether the government played a role in influencing decision-making.
Some Japanese commentators suggested Tokyo make its position on the Diaoyu Islands better known to the international community. Moves in that direction will only backfire; they will prove that Japan's claim that it does not have territorial disputes with China is a lie. And facts have shown that attempts to establish Japan as a de-facto law enforcer in waters off the Diaoyu Islands will end in vain.
Japanese hardliners also advocate strengthening their military presence and holding joint military exercises with the United States in waters off the Diaoyu Islands. Such measures will likely turn territorial disputes into military confrontation.
For the two Asian neighbors, the only viable option is to make joint efforts to preserve their "strategic relationship of mutual benefit" and settle sensitive issues including territorial disputes appropriately and without escalating tensions.
(The author is a professor with the Institute of International Studies of Tsinghua University)