India-China-Japan Relations and the Weakness of Japanese Diplomacy
Prof. Michimi Muranushi

A good example of the weakness of Japanese diplomacy is the resurgence of territorial dispute between China and Japan in September 2010. Since August 2010, there have been an increasing number of Chinese fishing boats in the area near the Senkaku Islands. Though the territory is disputed among and Japan, China and Taiwan, Japan had controlled these islands from 1895 till Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II in 1945. The United States administered these islands as part of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands from 1945 to 1972, after which the islands were reverted back to the Japanese control under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty between the United States and Japan.

With the likelihood of the presence of oil and natural gas in the area, the disputes on the island involving China and Taiwan have arisen since 1971, as delimitation of the maritime boundaries and claims on Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) depends on the sovereignty of the islands. The Chinese claim the discovery and control of the islands since 14th century. Japan considers the islands to be an integral part of Okinawa prefecture of Japan, which is owned by a Japanese family, according to the Japanese civil law. However, there are no residents on the islands.

On September 7, 2010, about 30 Chinese boats fishing near the islands were asked to leave the area by Japanese coast guards, as it violated Japan’s sovereign territorial rights. All the boats except one followed suit and left the area. The lone boat which did not follow the orders suddenly turned back and intentionally collided with the boat of the Coast Guard. Had all the boats followed the order, there would have been no problem. But the turning around of one boat and its intentional collision with Japanese coast guard’s ship led to the ensuing of a diplomatic row between China and Japan. The Japanese coast guards arrested the captain and other sailors of the fishing boat involved in the collision on the charges of obstructing the works of public officials on duty.

All the sailors except the captain were released soon. The question of captain’s release, and the fear of his trial under the Japanese judicial system, became the focal point of diplomatic contention between China and Japan. The entire incident was videotaped by some Japanese coast guard, but the tape remained secretive and was not disclosed to the common public. Though it was a favorable proof for Japan that it was the Chinese boat that initiated the conflict and not the vice versa.

Japanese people evinced interest in watching the video, but on the pretext of national secrecy Japanese government showed the video only to the members of the Diet. However violating the official stand, the video was uploaded on ‘you tube’ by an employee of the Japanese coast guard. The person responsible for uploading the video was fired from the service and questioned by the police. But no formal charge was levied against the accused, as Japanese people at large were sympathetic of his act.

In this backdrop the question arises that what was the motive behind the Chinese fishing boat to initiate the conflict? Was it just a form of protest by the fishermen who were venting their anger against being driven away by the Japanese coast guard or, there was something more than what meets the eyes? Had Chinese government given its tacit consent to the fishermen to pick up a fight with the Japanese Coast Guards? Or, the Chinese fishermen just went fishing closer to the disputed territorial waters in the hope of better catch, and the Chinese government did not have the legal means to stop them?

Whatsoever may be the reason d’être behind initiating the conflict, the Chinese government officially protested to the Japanese government about the arrest of the captain and asked for his immediate release. It cancelled all high level meetings between Chinese and Japanese officials. It cancelled activities such as the Japanese students’ friendship visit to Shanghai international exposition. Even the rare-earth export from China to Japan was stopped, though the Chinese government did not link this to the arrest of the captain. Four Japanese employees of a Japanese construction company working for the removal of the Japanese chemical weapons buried in China since the Chinese-Japanese War during WWII were arrested on the pretext of photographing a militarily restricted area. It is highly unlikely that the arrest of the Japanese on account of violation of military regulations merely coincided with the arrest of the Chinese captain. It took some time for the rare earth exports to Japan to restart and all the arrested employees of the general construction company to be free.

Numerous anti-Japanese demonstrations were held in several cities of China, against the arrest of the captain. It was reported in Japan that the Chinese government was very cautious in handling these demonstrations, lest these anti-Japanese demonstrations should not turn into anti-government demonstrations. Chinese government and the public demanded Japan’s government to tender an official apology and compensation to the arrestees, but the Japanese government refused to cave into their pressures.

Central government in Japan did not respond on the issue. From Japan side only Prosecutors’ Office of Okinawa responded saying that in consideration of the China-Japan relations they are releasing the captain, but, the charges on the captain were withheld. The captain was returned to China and welcomed as a hero. The local Prosecutors office of Okinawa taking foreign policy into consideration in discharging its duties was not only illegal, but, a farce which no Japanese liked. Japanese government was seen not only to make an unexpected and untimely concession to the Chinese government; but, it was also seen to disguise itself as an innocent third party. Sengoku, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Kan Cabinet, in response to a question in the Diet, said that it was purely a decision of the Prosecutors’ Office in Okinawa to release the captain, and not the decision of the Cabinet. However, it was widely believed in Japan that the real decision to release the captain was made by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, himself. Sengoku in his personal conversation with a member of the diet is reported to have confided that the approaching APEC meeting would have been a disaster, if the tension between China and Japan continued. However he denied having said this later. The majority of the Japanese public saw the Japanese government’s attitude toward China as submissive. A number of anti-Chinese demonstrations were held in Tokyo; these incidents were reported in China, but not in Japan. The percentage of people supporting the Kan cabinet dropped significantly.

The Liberal Democratic Party asserted that the weakening of the US-Japanese alliance was the cause of Chinese assertiveness. Earlier even the DPJ government had difficulty in tackling the Okinawa issue and negotiating with the US to move Futenma US marine base to Nago, a northern part of Okinawa islands. US insisted that an agreement to move the Futenma base had already been reached with LDP government of Japan in the past, but the DPJ government was unnecessarily trying to search for an alternative. The people in Okinawa felt betrayed by the DPJ.

Inferences which can be drawn from the above debate:

(1) The whole episode seems to indicate a higher degree of assertiveness by China on the territorial issues. But it is not easy to say ‘whether the Chinese government had initiated an assertive diplomacy’, or, ‘is it the Chinese people who have started an assertive policy, and Chinese Government just steps in, to simply protect its citizens’. In this case, it was the Chinese fishing boats and not the Chinese government that initiated the conflict. However, this presumption does not deny the fact that there may be some tacit agreement between the Chinese people and the government, and they simply do not want to acknowledge it.

(2) The Japanese government released the captain at the worst possible moment, and did not seem to realize its long-term implications. DPJ government tried to maintain a façade of friendship in the approaching multilateral meeting with China, at a time when they should have registered a strong protest with China.
May be the Japanese leaders were not accustomed to a crisis like this, or, the fact that cabinet has been changed so frequently in Japan in the recent years that the leaders do not think about long-term effects of their decisions. In either of the cases, the government’s action was deplorable in the people’s eyes.

(3) Japanese government did not have the organizational decision-making system to decide on a point of historic importance. It was not even the Prime Minister Kan who took the decision as he was abroad. It was Sengoku who decided. The fault of the PM was to let Sengoku decide on a matter of national importance.
(4) The decision to set free the captain in the face of increasing Chinese pressure sent a wrong signal to the Chinese government that coercive diplomacy is quite effective in dealing with Japan.

(4) The decision to set free the captain in the face of increasing Chinese pressure sent a wrong signal to the Chinese government that coercive diplomacy is quite effective in dealing with Japan.

(5) It is understandable that the Chinese government was hesitant in suppressing anti-Japanese demonstrations. Had the government been stern in dealing with demonstrators; the demonstrators may have directed their anger against the Chinese government.

(6) The Chinese diplomacy is an amorphous combination of official policies and elements not directly under the control of the Chinese government. The move of the Chinese fishing boats, the arrest of the Japanese employees, the anti-Japanese demonstrations are some of the elements which put Chinese government in some advantageous position. But it is difficult to say that all these incidents were a calculated move by the Chinese government to meet their strategic goals.

(7) Japanese leadership lacks the will to raise international support against assertive Chinese policy from other neighbors of China. The leaders might not have imagined that they were facing a critical situation, which would have implications on the settlement of Spratly and Paracel islands or other territorial disputes with China.
Japanese government should have exposed the double standards of China in the South China and the East China Sea, but it preferred not to raise the issue.

(8) The Opposition LDP lacked imagination and simply raised the trite slogan of US-Japan military ties. It should have argued what the government should have done in the midst of the crisis.

(9) Japan lost the dispute with China by its failure to sustain a dispute. It is yet to be seen how long Japan could have endured the arrest of the Japanese employees or the restriction of rare earth exports. Before these objective limitations became apparent, the Japanese government succumbed, subjectively.

(10) An interesting question which the entire episode raises is the extent to which Japan can fight against apparent Chinese economic sanctions in the future. In this relatively short period of conflict, Japanese industries had begun to look for alternative sources of imports. But what will be the means to coerce Japan in the future is difficult to predict at this stage.

(11) In a sense, China took Japan hostage in this episode. It was beyond the imagination of the Japanese government to blame China on this rather immoral method of diplomacy.

However, going through all the inferences, none of the inferences seem very comfortable for the Japanese government.

This raises the question as to why Japanese government went on a defensive, when they ought to have been on an offensive mode. The reason for this may lie in the inherent psyche of the Japanese political system, and their ‘dependency syndrome’ in the international political organization.

Weaknesses of Japanese diplomacy:

(1) Some Japanese individuals as well as organizations suffer from ‘China School’ phenomenon. This means that people who are working for Japan’s relations with China tend to think more in terms of China’s interests rather than in terms of Japan’s interests. This trend is less apparent now than before, but the trend continues. People trained in Chinese language in the ministry of foreign affairs of Japan have developed a kind of monophonic relations with China. In other words, China is their only and forever client. Japanese bureaucrats trained as China specialists tend to avoid sharp conflict with China and advice for conciliatory policies. Likewise, media like Asahi Shinbun refrains from disclosing information on the problematic side of China.

(2) Like ‘China School’ problem, there is ‘American school’ problem. In some think tanks, arguments critical of the US or US-Japan security ties are carefully omitted in the editorial processes.

(3) More than half a century has passed since the start of the US-Japan security treaty. The implication of this upon the mindset of the Japanese leaders should not be underestimated. But, in fact territorial dispute is an area where this treaty cannot be applied effectively. Naturally, US hesitates in defending a disputed Japanese territory. Within the framework of the alliance Japan has lost the idea of self-reliance, and has not developed a la de Gaulle, a heretic and independent leader.

(4) Japan’s outlook after WWII has turned regional rather than global. Due to its narrow outlook Japan concentrates mainly on East Asia and the US, and neglecting all others, including countries on the western side of China, and China’s relations with South and Southeast Asia. Japan needs to watch China from all the angles, rather than just looking at it from a limited angle of the East. As Chinese leaders think from a broad perspective, like what to do with Russia, Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, etc.; they have developed a strategic acumen, which Japanese leaders lack. The alliance with the US makes Japan half-blind, but in the future Japan will have to pay the price for its peaceful past, especially in terms of diplomatic human resources.

(5) Japan lacks the will to gather information independently. This was evident in the case of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), in which US justified its attack on Iraq on a faulty intelligence. Japan had no means to independently verify the veracity of its claims, and fell prey to the American designs. Interestingly, Japanese people did not blame the government for its poor military intelligence. This may be because of the psychological trauma of the WWII and dependency factor on US in the post-war scenario.

(6) Japanese government has a tendency to avoid conflict. If the Japanese government had made the videotape public earlier, public opinion in China and Japan would have been more pro-Japanese, rather anti-government in Japan and anti-Japan in China. They would have known that the captain rushed the Japan Coast Guard, and not the other way around. The Chinese people have more freedom of speech than before and can be more critical of their authoritarian government, but they are given only a limited amount of information by the government. At least in the fishing incident Japan had the means to fill up the void, it missed that opportunity.

Some Suggestions:

To tackle the diplomatic weakness of Japan, Japanese government should start providing more information to the common public and help in creating strategic minded Japanese. With the aging of Japanese population, Japanese tend to look inward and worry about their material subsistence. As a resultant, Japanese news tends to be more domestic than international. This trend of myopia needs to be terminated.

While maintaining US-Japan, China-Japan relations, Japan should develop relations with China’s neighbors, such as Russia, India, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.

Many countries in Asia are apprehensive about how to cope with the rapid growth of China. As the Western region of China comes to play a more important role in the Chinese economy, China’s relations with countries on the west and south needs to be watched more carefully. One way to do this is to create an independent Asian media, providing all the details of the developments in Western China and neighboring regions.

Chinese foreign policy needs to be seen as a comprehensive whole. For example, to understand Chinese lukewarm attitude towards North Korean nuclear program or human rights problems, one need to see Chinese policies on Myanmar. The more these countries are internationally isolated, the closer China relations with these countries.

There should be a custom that Chinese neighbor’s should voice opinion on each other’s relations with China. Japan should voice its opinion about China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

A framework of understanding among countries having disputes with China over territorial waters should be developed. Unilateral concession to Chinese claims should be dissuaded, and each dispute should be seen as a part the complete maritime boundaries disputes China is having with other countries.

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Published Date : 20th June, 2011

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