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.