Taking a foreign national into custody, no matter what the alleged crime, is often a green light for a spiral of tit-for-tat diplomatic sparring. And Japan’s detainment of Zhan Qixiong, the skipper of a Chinese fishing boat, is no exception (especially between two nations with a notoriously fractious relationship).
Zhan’s vessel collided with (or intentionally rammed into—depending on who you listen to) two Japanese Coast Guard ships close to the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu in Chinese) island chain two weeks ago. Japanese authorities released the crew and allowed the craft to return to China, but are still holding Zhan on suspicion for the misdemeanour in what Tokyo says are sovereign waters. (See Richard Weitz’s analysis piece for a backgrounder on the claims.)
China abruptly shuttered ministerial-level contact channels with Japan over the incident, and has further threatened harsh retaliation if its neighbour does not quickly release the captain. But it seems Tokyo is playing by the book in its legal treatment of Zhan, treating him as it would any other suspected perpetrator of a crime in its waters, and has yet to indicate its plans for the detained skipper.
The row has also endangered delicate negotiations between Japan and China on joint drilling for potentially lucrative gas said to be in abundance under the waters separating the two nations.
Chinese nationalists are also outraged, dozens of whom have been protesting outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Japan has hit back at China, warning that the incident should not be used to incite ‘extreme nationalism’ on either side.
The collision has also rocked the boat of cultural ties between the countries. Cold water has been poured on planned visits by groups of Japanese youths to the Shanghai World Expo and an international tourism festival; Tokyo’s hawkish governor Shintaro Ishihara has scrapped a trip to China, accusing Beijing of acting like ‘yakuza mobsters’; and some Chinese tourists are even said to be cancelling shopping trips to Japan. Perhaps the only saving grace of this dispute is that the eardrums of Chinese music fans will be spared the noise of ageing Japanese ‘boy’ band SMAP, with ticket sales for their debut concerts in China now suspended.
With both countries playing their full repertoire of diplomatic tricks, Seiji Maehara, the recently appointed Japanese foreign minister, has been tossed straight into stormy waters. Maehara is known to be hostile to China’s remilitarization; especially its perceived attempts to flex its newfound might in the East China Sea.
But the fact remains that Japan and China rely on one another for trade, and while their respective governments are splashing on face-saving cosmetics to conceal any sign of weakness, they both must realize that the squabble benefits neither side.
The same applies to Japan and other neighbours with which it has territorial bickerings, namely South Korea, Taiwan and Russia. Trade between these nations not only brings economic benefits, but also maintains strength through solidarity in the region, which is especially important now with the likely succession announcement in Pyongyang and the continued unpredictability of North Korea. These relations are so essential that South Korea is reportedly considering building underwater tunnels for high-speed trains to China and Japan.
One possible means of settling these territorial disputes is through third-party mediation by an entity such as the United States, the European Union, or even the United Nations.
Bilateral talks seem to be making little progress, and so a framework (such as the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear programme) could help bring these East Asian nations (and Russia) closer to agreement on sovereignty claims. While talks would be convoluted (the China-Taiwan issue should be avoided for now) and take many years to come to fruition, the economic and diplomatic benefits of any handshakes could be huge.
Japan and its neighbours should cast aside their dogged nationalism and stop playing the blame game. Otherwise, incidents in disputed waters could really set them on a collision course.