Saturday, September 11, 2010

China Finds a Dodge from the Senkaku Incident (I Think)

RS: Some warm-up exercises for the real thing.

On September 7, a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat tried to board and inspect a Chinese fishing boat in the territorial waters around the Senkaku (Diaoyu to China and Taiwan) Islands. A collision ensued as the fishing boat tried to escape. The patrol boat chased down the fishing boat in the adjacent EEZ*, arresting the captain for the crime of obstruction of performing a public duty. The rest of its crew were taken together with the boat for questioning to Ishigakijima, the nearest well-populated island in Okinawa.

I was curious to see how the Chinese side would react. The diplomatic response seemed par for the course: protests and claims of sovereignty over the uninhabited islands as well as demands for the release of the fishing boat and its crew, issued from the Chinese MOFA spokesman and ambassador in Tokyo and through the Japanese ambassador in Beijing. Meanwhile, the Chinese public also reportedly went into its usual routine consisting of angry media reports, public protests in front of the Japanese embassy, burning rage in chatrooms and the like. What occupied my thoughts were the possibility of boycotts of Japanese products and assaults on Japanese embassies and consulates and their personnel, and further actions that the Chinese authorities would take to keep such threats of civil unrest to a minimum.

The first and more alarming Chinese act was the September 9 announcement of the dispatch of a fishing observation vessel belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture to the Senkaku waters to protect Chinese fishing boats. Such an action may be standard practice for the Chinese authorities**, but it would set the two sides up for a clash the first time a Japanese patrol boat tries to board and inspect a Chinese fishing boat—one news report provides an estimate of 160 such boats plying the disputed waters at any time—and the Chinese observation vessel intervenes. Necessary for domestic consumption perhaps, but the Senkaku Islands are under the effective control of Japan, much the way the Northern Territories and Takashima are held by Russia and South Korea respectively. What happened to possession as nine points of the law? Oddly, Minister of Defense Hiromi Kitazawa stated during a press conference the following morning (September 10) that the Chinese observation vessel had already left the nearby waters. What gives?

I suspect that the answer to the second question lies in the Chinese announcement the following day (September 11) that China was unilaterally postponing the bureau director-general level talks for a East China Sea gas field joint development treaty, scheduled during the second ten days of this month. Note that this is an issue on which the Chinese authorities have been dragging their feet forever, partly because of the highly negative response to the concession—largely illusory, as I have pointed out before on this blog, but Chinese netizens are not among my most avid readers—from the Chinese public. Thus, the announcement should play well with the Chinese public. The reaction from the Japanese public is less of a concern; collectively, they lack the nationalist fervor of their East Asia counterparts. Moreover, the Japanese authorities, at least a DPJ administration, could let the issue remain without closure and not suffer any political consequences as long as the Chinese side does not unilaterally begin commercial production on their side of the median line (at least if I understand the underlying economics correctly). So, if my reasoning is sound, the Chinese side has found the optimum solution to the conundrum: appease the Chinese public and government hardliners while minimizing the risk of escalation—you can be sure that the Japanese authorities do not have another tat for the Chinese tit—that could arise from Chinese action in waters controlled by the Japanese authorities.

That said, the large and growing number of Chinese fishing boats meeting the demands of an increasingly affluent domestic population is bound to increase the chances of similar incidents. And if any one of them results in a casualty, all bets are off.
* According to my recollection, one media report, which I cannot find, mentioned that a Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft assisted in tracking the fishing boat. Some people are making calls for closer coordination between the civil-service Coast Guard and the “military” JSDF to meet such threats to Japanese sovereignty.

** According to media reports, the Chinese MOA observation vessels vary in size, at least one of them over 4000 tons, and are often armed. They have been active around the South China Sea and beyond, where China has aggressively pushed its territorial claims against several ASEAN member states, sometimes with military force.


Joe said...

Isn't Japan part of East Asia

/minor quibble

Sun Bin said...


i guess it is part of the "East Asian" language things. i guess most japanese or chinese people would read this as "non-exclusive", as i didn't notice this when i read it.
i.e. "the other East Asian party" is what people with East Asian linguistic root would have read it. :)

my bet is that the captain will be release in a few days, as he was ordered for a 10-day term. and may be releases a bit early because his mother died of a heart attack that following night.


1. those who are in the know would agree with you that the concessions are illusory. but there are people who took this against the PRC government knowingly and opportunistically. an editorial in an anti-CCP newspaper today tried to distort the 'allowed to invest concession' by saying "PRC agree for Japanese to inject capital into the oil drilling project"
-- my view is, those who attack the talk will, regardless of what the real deal is. PRC government knows that. but i agree with you that they found an easy option for both sides to save face.

2. can you point me to the reasoning of "underlying economics"? i thought it was more of a Chinese technology issue not a fundamental economic i.e. (worldwide technology) issue. i.e. if it were BP/Exxon this wouldn't be a big issue? and given time, they would find a way to drill it?

Jun Okumura said...

Sun Bin: Thank you for your explanation of “East Asia counterparts.” To avoid any ambiguity for the benefit of non-East Asian readers, I should have written “East Asia (better, Northeast Asia?) neighbors”.

I do not share your optimism for an early release of the fishermen. I think that Dai Bingguo’s midnight summons eliminated that possibility. (More to come tomorrow.)

Sorry for the misunderstanding on “underlying economics.” I should have written the “underlying economics of the gas fields for the Japanese side.” Distance and geology, as I suspect that you are aware, makes China the only viable market for the gas fields on the Japanese side of the median line.

More to come on this issue tomorrow.

Sun Bin said...

1. yes, i agree with you that Dai made it harder for the Japanese side to yield even if they wanted to. it doesn't leave much room for face saving or manuveuring.
-- maybe related to how Niwa responded to the PRC MOFA in the previous days as well?

i sympathize with poor Mr Niwa. Dai seemed to punish Mr Niwa by making him suffer the Beijing traffic jam with a trip crossing the city. MOFA and Japanese Embassy are within walkable distance so his previous 3 trips were not as bad. (just kidding, i heard he was summoned in midnight where there was no traffic)

2. underlying economics -- yes, i know the "seabed geomorphology" issue. but i think distance is not really the issue, they are close to the "Median" -- by definition equidistance.
however, i suspect there is some (maybe temporal) technical issues as well, to explain why PRC has been so slow in the commercial drilling on the existing wells.

i look forward to your new post. there is not much information here about the true japanese, or even non-chinese views from the chinese language press -- even in Hong Kong where the press is free. they either repeat the Chinese argument or go fully anti-CCP.

p.s. maybe "counterpart across the east china sea" :)
but it is very difficult to find a good translation in English, to capture both the meaning of "counterpart" (the equivalent party on the other side of the table) while also hinting they share the same interests being both as part of East Asia. i realized the subtlety (of your origin writing and perhaps also Joe's query) while trying to find the right word for it.

Jun Okumura said...

Sun Bin: I too find it hard to explain—understand, if I’m to be honest about it—the complexity of the bilateral relationship, where the underlying interests are convergent or competitive, not adversarial, except perhaps in the case of certain rare earth resources (where Japanese research centers are furiously at work seeking alternatives insert favorite smiley emoticon).

The Japanese media are absorbed by the DPJ leadership election, so there’s not much air left for an incident involving a Chinese fishing vessel with no casualties.

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