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China-Japan Row: A Wake up Call for India?

Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan could finally succeed in diffusing tensions that erupted among them following a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese coast guard vessels in waters off the disputed Senkaku islands (called Diao Yu by the Chinese, now administered by Japan) on 8 September 2010. The captain of the Chinese boat has since been released by Tokyo and in an apparent sign of a thaw, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan have met at Brussels on 4 October 2010 at the sidelines of ASEM meeting, to discuss the contentious issue. The PRC President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit Tokyo in November 2010 for attending the summit of APEC nations; the two sides may at that time have an opportunity to continue the dialogue.

China’s Bullying Tactics

What stands out is the apparent bullying tactics adopted by China against Japan over the Senkakus episode; its manifestations include:

  1. Warnings to Japan over release of Chinese boat captain have come from top leadership in China, which rather look unusual.  For e.g, Premier Wen Jiabao has himself cautioned that Beijing would take ‘unspecified actions’ if Tokyo does not correct its mistake.

  2. The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese Ambassador to the PRC five times for lodging protests.

  3. The PRC cancelled the scheduled visit to Japan by its senior parliamentarian, postponed bilateral talks over natural gas exploration in East China Sea, halted exports of rare earth metals essential for development of high technology goods in Japan (later denied by the Chinese Commerce Ministry), suspended plans to increase flights to each other nation and stopped a Chinese government-sponsored visit of 1000 Japanese to the Shanghai World Expo.

  4. In apparent retaliation to Japanese detentions of Chinese crew, China’s police arrested four employees of the Japanese firm, Fujita Corporation, in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province on charges of their entering a military zone without authorization.

  5. Assertions that China has undisputed sovereignty over the Senkakus have come from high political and official levels in the PRC, adding a new sharpness and urgency to the dispute; this may stand in contrast to the advice given by veteran leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978 to leave the issue in the hands of ‘wiser’ next generations. Notable such assertions include Wen’s claim of sovereignty over Senkakus during his talks with Naoto Kan at Brussels and the PRC Foreign Ministry’s demand for an official apology from Japan for its   “severe infringement of China’s territorial sovereignty and personal rights and interests of Chinese citizens”.

The Japanese response to China’s tough posture on Senkakus has also come from high levels.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan has told Wen at Brussels that Japan’s sovereignty over Senkakus is beyond question and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara has stressed that the Chinese boat episode concerns Japanese domestic laws. Also, Tokyo has rejected Beijing’s demand for apology.

Reasons for China’s Aggressive Approach

Why China chose to up the ante at this point on the Senkakus issue? One can discern four reasons in this regard as mentioned below:

Firstly, since middle 2009, China has been enforcing a foreign policy with a revised strategic focus, giving priority to protecting what the PRC calls its “core interests” – Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, strategic resources and trade routes; analysts seem correct in perceiving that this has resulted in a new assertiveness centering round ‘sovereignty’ factor in China’s external behavior. Evidences to assertiveness  include the PRC’s  growing naval activism in South China Sea and East China Sea, hard line position on the Dalai Lama issue, strong anti-US positions on Yuan exchange rate and Taiwan as well as expansion of influence abroad, for e.g in Pakistan, through use of military and nuclear assistance.

Regarding the specific issue of Senkakus, there appears to be a special meaning to the Chinese claims of sovereignty over the islands, considering that China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world overtaking Japan.   The claims seem to be closely linked with one of China’s above-mentioned core interests – tapping energy resources. Waters and under the sea bed off Senkakus have high potentials for resources and sovereignty over the islands would enable China to gain base lines for its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), legitimizing its exploitation of resources. As against this, the PRC feels challenged by Japan, which has recently allocated gas exploration rights in East China Sea to private firms, warranting a counter measure from Beijing by way of its shipping drilling equipment to the Chunxiao gas field In East China Sea. Beijing may have reasons to fear that in the event of a conflict with US-supported Japan, its oil supply lines could become vulnerable.

Secondly, from a strategic viewpoint, China is finding the US role as an inhibiting factor for its assertiveness in East China Sea encompassing Senkakus, the Yellow Sea and South China Sea. Of particular concern to Beijing are (i) reiteration of US position recently that the Senkaku islands come under the framework of the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty that allows the US to protect Japan in the event of any external threat to latter’s territory, (ii) Secretary of State Clinton’s offer in July 2010 of US mediation to solve South China sea disputes and (iii) President Obama’s remarks at the US-ASEAN summit  ( New York,27 September 2010) that the US will oppose use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in South China Sea, which seem to target China.

Thirdly, nationalism is a prominent phenomenon in China-Japan relations. China, a victim of Japanese aggression historically, has to accommodate nationalist feelings in its society; this seems to influence Beijing to adopt a stubborn position on the Senkakus issue.

Lastly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to elect a new leadership in the forthcoming CCP Congress in 2012; jockeying for positions in the pre-Congress period appears a certainty. As appropriately felt by scholars like Drew Thompson of Nixon Centre in Washington, in such circumstances, Chinese leaders, particularly of the fifth generation which is to take over, may feel that the safest position for them is to be a hard liner on sovereignty-related issues like the Senkakus.

Senkakus- Arunachal: A Comparison

For analysts in India, a look into the similarities or otherwise in the Chinese attitudes towards Senkaku dispute and the Sino-Indian border question, may be useful. Firstly, both Senkakus and Arunachal Pradesh (called Southern Tibet by China) are important to the PRC in terms of national sovereignty and regional strategy. Secondly, Beijing sees a US angle in the East and South China Sea issues. It does not see the same in China-India boundary question, but in general continues to nurture suspicions of US-India collusion. Another common point relates to the presence of resources in Senkakus and Arunachal – oil and gas in East China seas and minerals, coal, zinc etc in Arunachal. Beijing may like to exploit them which is possible only when the PRC exercises sovereignty over them. Fourthly, the PRC does not have a fixed formula to settle the Senkakus problem; it only demands Japan ‘to take real actions to add to the content of the mutually beneficial and strategic relationship’. It holds a hawkish  position in favour of forcibly throwing out any foreign ship operating off the Senkakus islands as per its Territorial Waters Law adopted in 1992.On the other hand, China supports the principle of ‘mutual understanding and mutual accommodation’  as  basis for solution to the Sino-Indian boundary question. Lastly, China views the border dispute with India as a colonial legacy; in the case of Senkakus, Beijing seems to find a similar US legacy against the fact that it was the US which handed over the administration of Senkakus to Japan in 1971.

Lessons for India

What can India learn from the latest Sino-Japanese friction over Senkakus? Striking first is China’s postponement of talks with Japan on reaching a pact providing for joint development of the gas fields in East China Sea, in the wake of Senkakus developments. A  Sino-Japanese agreement concluded in June 2008, had provided the basis for such talks. The emerging point is that Beijing can go back on its past commitments if the situation warrants, which should be noted by New Delhi. Chinese position on Sikkim is a classic example. As per information available so far, despite a Sino-Indian basic understanding, dejure recognition of Sikkim as India’s state is yet to come.

The PRC’s use of civilians to assert its sovereignty over Senkakus, should be another point of interest for India. Chinese fishing vessels are armed, indicating closeness between the PRC Navy and the fishing industry. The cases of Chinese border intrusions into India, similarly intended for asserting sovereignty, need to be examined from this perspective.

Chinese blogs suggest that a particular motive for Chinese action in Senkakus is to monitor Japan’s reported increase in the recent period of Ground Self Defence Personnel in that island, assignment of active roles to the country’s coast guards to defend the area and augmentation of air cover level for the island. This could be relevant to India’s case. Beijing has strong reservations on India’s plans to dispatch two mountain divisions and position advanced Su-37 fighter aircraft to defend Arunachal Pradesh. Will there be an increased surveillance from the PRC over India’s defence preparedness in the Sino-Indian border, can be a moot question for India.

Japan’s economy is dependent on China. The PRC has become Japan’s biggest trading partner. Among the countries which export to China, Japan occupies No.1 position now, replacing the US. On the Senkaku issue, Beijing seems to have used its economic leverage against Tokyo. It will be a useful exercise for New Delhi to study the possibilities of China doing the same at times of conflict with India.


Summing up, it can be said that by its aggressive action on the Senkakus issue, China seems to have hurt its own image of being a peacefully rising country with no hegemonic intentions, one which the PRC has so far been carefully nurturing. Also, the growing assertiveness on the part of the PRC is being seen by many as contributing to geo-political changes in the region. More importantly, a fresh opportunity for the US to play an active role in the region seems to have arisen. Reflecting the same, the US Vice-President Biden has urged that his country’s improvement of ties with China must go through Tokyo.  Regarding Japan, it is expected to give further boost to its alliance with the US to counter Chinese motives. The ASEAN nations may also have begun their rethinking process, as signaled by the emerging support from some among them  for accepting US assistance to resolve regional maritime disputes.

India should keep a close watch on China’s motivations for being assertive. It cannot afford to lag behind in the matter of protecting its strategic interests, but should at the same time engage China. As correctly pointed out by former Indian Foreign Secretary Mr Shyam Saran,  India should diversify its relations with other major powers and expand its diplomatic options in order to manage relations with friends and adversaries alike.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.

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