In the pre-dawn hours of September 12*, State Councillor Dai Bingguo urgently summoned Uichiro Niwa, Japanese Ambassador to China, regarding the illegal seizure of a Chinese fishing boat and its crew in the waters around the Diaoyu Islands, gravely expressed the Chinese government’s serious concern and stringent position, and urged the Japanese side not to misjudge the situation but to make a wise political decision and immediately return the Chinese fishermen and fishing boat.On one hand, the Chinese message contained nothing new: there were no or-else threats, and the Chinese challenge of the legality of the “seizure” was included in the post but not in Dao’s comments. On the other hand, a past-midnight summons to an ambassador plenipotentiary seemed pretty heavyhanded. And with the extraordinary State Councillor card now on the table, the only recourse left to the Chinese authorities would be a Wen (but heavens not Hu)-to-Kan hotline call.
Ambassador Niwa stated that he would take this Chinese position and report it immediately and accurately to his home government**.
The events of today (September 13) show that the fix indeed was in. The crew (but not the captain) returned to China on an aircraft chartered by the Chinese side and flight arrangements obviously expedited, perfectly legal and according to Japanese criminal procedure law; the Japanese authorities expressed their displeasure at the insult of the late-night summons; and the Chinese MOFA spokeswoman—why do I think that we have heard the last of the State Councillor?—demanded the release of the captain. The Japanese legal process will most likely grind on. How about a plea of guilty from the Chinese captain including an expression of remorse—to be retracted immediately on his return to China?—for not showing proper civility to the Japanese authorities while avoiding any explicit recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus, a request from the Public Prosecutors Office for a suspended sentence expeditiously granted by the bench, and deportation as soon as the deadline for appeals passes?
A question lingers in my mind though. I might be imagining things, but these maritime incidents seem to be occurring just as the DPJ is having problems managing the Japan-Us relationship. It’s as if they were designed to drive Japan back into Uncle Sam’s arms when the DPJ leadership might—just might—have been inclined to turn more decisively towards China’s way. I would not have these thoughts but for parallel reports of the verbal altercation between Japanese and Chinese research vessels this side of the EEZ median line (this Sankei report predictably being the most alarmist among them). If there’s a fatal accident, or an exchange of fire between a Chinese research/observation vessel and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, all bets are off.
* The first online MSM report in Japan came from ASAHI, with a 3:48AM byline (most likely following an immediate briefing for the Japanese media by the Ambassador or his spokesman), so it was more of a post-midnight summons. More significant, of course, is that this fourth summons came from the State Councillor in charge of foreign policy.
** If anyone is wondering, Ambassador Niwa talked back to the State Councillor to the effect that Japan remained unchanged in its position regarding the legal status of the Senkakus and that it would properly deal with the incident according to Japanese law, according to the Japanese media—which fact, if true, the Chinese MOFA chose to ignore in its press release.
This AP wire had the most useful factual account of the facts as of this posting. I want to flag that.