The war of nerves and words between China and Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands (the Chinese call it the Diayou Islands) in the East China Sea continues despite the Japanese release of the Captain of a Chinese fishing trawler whom they had arrested on September 8, 2010, for criminal trespass into the Japanese territorial waters around the Japanese-administered islands.
The Chinese are yet to release one of the four Japanese employees of a construction company whom they had arrested apparently in retaliation for the Japanese arrest of the fishing trawler's Captain. The abrupt Japanese release of the Captain after having initially given evidence of its intention to prosecute him followed the Chinese arrest of the four Japanese employees.
Rightly or wrongly, this has given rise to a perception in Japan that its Prime Minister Naoto Kan has let himself be bullied by China. The whole incident as it has been handled by the Kan Government has been seen by sections of the media and public in Japan as a humiliation of Japan by China.As if this perceived humiliation is not enough, Bejing is insisting that before the relations between the two countries could be normalised, Japan should apologise for the "illegal" arrest of the Captain and for his "wrongful" detention.If Mr.Kan concedes this demand, it would amount to his admitting indirectly that the group of islands is Chinese and not Japanese territory.
There is disappointment in Japan over the failure of the Barack Obama Administration to come out strongly in support of Japan in this war of nerves with China. The US recognises the Senkaku as Japanese-administered since 1972, but has not recognised Japanese claims of sovereignty over the Islands. At the same time, there is no denial of the interpretation that the protective provisions of the US-Japan security treaty cover the Senkaku islands too.
The Japanese were hoping that the US would come out as strongly against Chinese machinations in respect of the East China Sea islands as Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, did in respect of the South China Sea islands during her intervention at a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi earlier this year. Surprisingly and inexplicably, the US has contented itself with statements merely calling for a peaceful resolution of the Sino-Japanese differences.
Attention has not been drawn by analysts to the blatant double standards in Chinese diplomacy as seen from its policy towards India on the Kashmir issue and its policy towards Japan on the Senkaku issue. The Chinese have been saying that the recent changes in favour of Pakistan in their stance on Kashmir is an individual issue which should not be allowed to have an impact on the over-all relations between India and China. But, they have refused to treat the arrest of the Chinese Captain by the Japanese as an individual issue which should not affect the over-all Sino-Japanese relations.
They have made the entire Sino-Japanese relations a hostage to this single issue. They have allegedly stopped the export of rare earth elements to Japan on which the Japanese high-tech industries are dependent. They have suspended high-level contacts between the two countries. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declined to meet the Japanese Prime Minister when the two were in New York last week for the UN General Assembly session. Beijing has discouraged its tourists from visiting Japan. It has cancelled the visit of Japanese delegations to the Shanghai Expo.
The only factors that have acted as a check on the Chinese bullying of Japan are Beijing's uncertainty over the implications of the US-Japan security treaty in so far as the Senkaku group is concerned and fears that if Beijing continued to over-react it might provide fresh oxygen to Japanese militarists.
In a statement before the Japanese Parliament on October 1, Prime Minister Kan said: "The rise of China has been remarkable in recent years, but we are concerned about its strengthening defence capabilities without transparency and accelerating maritime activities spanning from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea. The Senkaku islands are an integral part of our country, historically and under international law. Good relations with China - Japan's largest trading partner - are vital to both countries, but China must act as a responsible member of the international community. Japan needed to adopt more active foreign and defence policies to deal with uncertainty and instability that exist in areas surrounding our country."
His statement followed remarks by China's Foreign Ministry spokesman the previous day urging Japan to "stop making irresponsible remarks and safeguard the larger interests of bilateral relations with concrete actions". The spokesman, Jiang Yu, said: "We are willing to resolve our disputes through friendly negotiations but the Chinese Government's and people's will and resolve are unswerving on issues involving China's territorial integrity and sovereignty."
The regional "uncertainty and instability" consequent upon China's over-assertiveness in matters relating to territorial disputes should be of concern not only to Japan, but also to India, Vietnam and the Philippines. India's concerns over its long-pending border dispute with China and over the stepped-up Chinese support to Pakistan in the nuclear field and in the construction of road and rail infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan are legitimate. So are the concerns of Vietnam and the Philippines regarding the Chinese intentions and capabilities in the South China Sea.
The perceptions and concerns of India, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines relating to China should bring them together to discuss among themselves as to how to counter the over-assertiveness of China without creating a confrontational situation and without damaging the positive dimensions of their respective bilateral relations with China. Their discussions among themselves should cover the strong as well as the weak points of China--- the strong points against which they should protect themselves and the weak points which they could exploit.
An editorial carried by the Chinese Communist Party controlled Global Times on September 21 under the title Finding the Achilles' Heel of Japan said: "Provoking China comes with a heavy price tag. Finding Japan's soft spot will help end its hostile policies against China during its rise."
There is a need for India, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines to find the soft spots of China. Pakistan could turn out to be one such soft spot. India knows Gilgit-Baltistan and the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang better than the Chinese. North Korea, where a new leadership is emerging, could be another. The Japanese know North Korea as well as the Chinese do. India, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines should make overtures to the new, emerging leadership in North Korea and help it to free North Korea of its linkages with China and develop its prosperity. This is the time for India to seriously consider establishing contacts with the new North Korean leadership and invite Kim Jong-Un, the heir-apparent to Kim Jong-il, to India.
New Delhi's Look East policy as it has evolved till now has over-focussed on our relations with the ASEAN. The relations with the ASEAN countries continue to be important. It is time to give an East Asia dimension too to our Look East policy.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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