Captain Risks Japan-China Ties

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It’s been barely a month since Japan and China finally started discussing the details of jointly developing gas fields in the disputed waters of the East China Sea. After two years of waiting since an initial agreement was reached, probably the last thing the negotiators wanted to see were reports of a Chinese ship ramming two Japanese patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by both countries.

But that’s what happened on Tuesday. Apparently, an uncooperative Chinese fishing ship’s captain refused to be inspected or to leave the sea around the uninhabited islands. Not only that, he also took it upon himself to crash into the two Japan Coast Guard ships issuing the orders for good measure.

Zhan Qixiong, 41, is now under arrest in Japan, sparking demonstrations in Beijing by apoplectic protestors who cannot understand why a fisherman in Chinese waters (from China’s perspective) should be held by the Japanese.

However, it’s difficult to have sympathy for the captain when he’s tried to damage two other ships, potentially putting the lives of his own crew and those of the Japanese patrol boats at risk, assuming the reported incidents are accurate.

Still, the Japanese government looks to have done a pretty good job of keeping a lid on the potential for national outrage at this dangerous act of maritime disobedience. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku called for calm and insisted that the situation should not be allowed to overheat, while the government lodged an official complaint with Beijing.

This approach of trying to maintain calm was for the most part well received by the Japanese media, which strongly backed the apprehension of the captain pretty much in unison. The two main dailies, the gingerly progressive Asahi and the conservative Yomiuri explained Japan’s claim to the island as if it were an undisputed axiom of geometry.

The Yomiuri, which claimed as many as 160 Chinese fishing boats were illegally located nearby the Senkaku Islands at the time of the incident on Tuesday, said the Japanese government took control of the islands in 1895. No one had complained then, it said. Furthermore, the islands were not included in the territories given up by Japan in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and it was only in the 1970s after a suggestion there might be some oil nearby that China and Taiwan started to take an interest.

Such a factor has nothing of course to do with Japan’s claims to the uninhabited islands over 400 kilometers southwest of Okinawa.

For its part, China’s Xinhua news agency ran a story Wednesday ‘proving’ the islands were Chinese territory geologically connected to Taiwan. The story claimed China had been forced to give up the islands to Japan in 1895 as a result of losing the first Sino-Japanese war. Another Xinhua story seemed to suggest the Japanese boats collided with the fishing boat and not the other way round while the arrest of the captain was, according to a foreign ministry spokesperson, ‘absurd, illegal and invalid.’

Back in Japan, the nation’s business dailies could not resist the chance to take a swipe at the Democratic Party of Japan, which is in the middle of a painful leadership election. The standard line is that the DPJ is ignoring national interests while it focuses on its internal power struggles. Of the Nikkei and the Sankei, the latter, as usual, took a more extreme line, criticizing Sengoku for dithering over what action to take because he wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident. The Sankei also insisted that not only the captain but all his 14 crew should also be immediately arrested.

Perhaps the most constructive suggestion from the Japanese press came from Japan’s third biggest daily, the Mainichi, which called for speeding up the creation of a joint maritime crisis management mechanism for dealing with the increasing number of incidents in disputed waters. This idea was originally proposed by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, during his brief spell in office.

Now a hotline between the countries is hardly an original idea, but given the events of this week, it actually sounds like a very good idea indeed.

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