I received the link to Yves Tiberghien’s highly useful paper on this timely topic. I sent back several comments to him and a group of his acquaintances. Let me share them with you, edited for presentation to third persons.
First, the domestic media make little or no attempt to help their respective publics understand the arguments and supportive material on the other side and allow the dominant narratives to go mostly unchallenged. That this is also true of the Japanese media is unsurprising in light of their treatment of several other issues regarding Japan’s relations with its east Asia neighbors, but it still puzzles me and finds me in rare agreement with Gregory Clark. Needless to say, this is highly unhelpful.
Second, the difference in the legal systems of the two countries regarding real estate ownership and more generally the state and the individual must have contributed significantly to Chinese misunderstanding of the Noda administration’s intent. Simply put, the Chinese public must find the notion that the state would have to engage in a regular bidding match with a local governor for a piece of land that is registered in a private individual’s name absurd. I suspect that most of China’s political and national security leadership, with little to no direct personal exposure to the legal and political systems of the West, also find it intuitively difficult to understand. He touches on this point briefly when you say, “Especially in a Chinese context, it seems unthinkable that there would not be a third option where the national government could step in to prevent the Tokyo deal without doing a full nationalization.” This must have been true at the grassroots and leadership levels alike and contributed significantly to the visceral fury and ferocity and made the conflict more intractable.
Third, there appears to have been an overreliance on formal diplomatic channels on the part of the Noda administration in explaining itself regarding the purchase. Foreign ministries are professionally inclined to downplay conflict, and—correct me if I’m wrong—the Chinese foreign minister is more of an administrative vice minister, but the DPJ’s options were limited given its paucity of political ties with China, particularly after Ichiro Ozawa pulled up stakes and moved out. I suspect that this was one reason why the Noda administration underestimated the Chinese blowback.
Fourth, I believe that making the legal and practical distinction between territorial waters and EEZs is useful to understanding the nature of the conflict. He writes:
“Coast guard tactics started with loudspeakers but, beginning in 2009-2010, gradually have expanded to more hard-ball methods to try to corner individual fishing boats, seize their fish and machinery and thus extract fines from the (mostly poor) fishermen. It is in that context that the clash occurred with Captain Zhang Qixong in September 2010”; and
“In the midst of growing tension in the Koizumi years, a further secret agreement seems to have been reached to reduce conflicts. That agreement stipulated that Japan would not bring under Japanese legal jurisdiction any arrested Chinese fishing boat captains, but would only expel them back to China (after, probably, extracting a material cost on them).”
He implies that the Koizumi administration was arresting Chinese fishermen and “probably, extracting a material cost on them” before 2009-2010. Since it is impossible to arrest fishermen unless you first apprehend their vessels, am I correct in assuming that this also involved some efforts to “corner individual fishing boats”? Is it possible that whatever apparent escalation on the part of the Japanese Coast Guard there was had been caused by the need to match up with bigger and faster Chinese fishing vessels, ever more numerous and aggressive, in executing the same enforcement activities? And what kind of escalation was involved in moving from “extracting a material cost on them” to “seiz[ing] their fish and machinery”? If by “machinery” he means tackling gear and other movables (and not engines and other bolted-down heavy machinery), it sounds very much like the “material cost” of the Koizumi years. To understand what was going on here, it may be useful to make a distinction between the territorial waters of the islands and the surrounding EEZ. If I remember correctly, both were left out of the treaties that determined jurisdictions over the fishing rights in the East China Sea. This effectively meant that Japan maintained effective control over the territorial waters there but had no authority over Chinese fishing vessels in the EEZ. There things might have stood for eternity and a day, but the Chinese vessels got bigger and better and more numerous as Chinese appetite for piscine protein grew, and fishing stock in the EEZ must have deteriorated, making the territorial waters more inviting. There’s an argument to be made that these intrusions into the territorial waters increased significantly quantitatively and qualitatively, leading to the 2010 collision that led to the Japanese threat to prosecute the Chinese fishing boat captain.
Finally, he mercifully spares us the prescriptive my-aunt-as-a-teacart coda so common in these tracts. Believe me, if there were a useful solution with a plausible game plan, we would know by now. Perhaps if someone put the two perspectives together in an overarching narrative presentable to both sides, people might come up with one.