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East China Sea: Sino-Japanese War of Nerves

The Chinese leadership is increasingly concerned over the firm line till now taken  by the Japanese leadership over the incident involving a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in what Japan considers  its territorial waters adjoining the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

2.Japan, which considers the islands its territory, is in administrative control of the disputed small group of islands and reefs. China calls the group the Diaoyu Islands and claims that the group historically belonged to China from the days of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The question of sovereighty over the group of islands has assumed importance due to a belief that the area is rich in oil and gas. China has been saying that Japan should concede Chinese sovereignty over the group. In return, China would agree to a joint development of the natural resources of the area by the two countries.

3.In the face of the Japanese insistence over its sovereignty, an incident involving a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the area on September 7,2010, has to a led of war of nerves between the two countries initiated by Beijing. The Japanese Coast Guard vessel, which questioned the intrusion of the trawler into what Japan regards as its territorial waters, was involved in a collision with the trawler. The Chinese project the incident as an accidental collision. The Japanese seem to suspect that the captain of the trawler, acting on instructions from the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), deliberately rammed the trawler against the Coast Guard vessel.

4. Initially, the Japanese detained the trawler and its crew, including the Captain, for investigation. They have since released the trawler and the crew except the Captain. The Captain is in the custody of the Japanese Police and is to be produced before a court on September 19. Beijing through diplomatic channels and through the Government-controlled media has mounted a war of nerves against Japan in order to intimidate Tokyo into releasing the Captain without prosecuting him. The Japanese Ambassador in Beijing was called to the Chinese Foreign Ministry five times since the incident took place to be warned of the consequences should the Captain not be released without prosecution.

5. The Japanese determination till now—-apparently with quiet American backing—not to release the Captain has put Beijing in a dilemma. If it did not have its way in this war of nerves and force Tokyo to concede its demand, it could be seen as a humiliation. This could be politically embarrassing to President Hu Jintao. If the Chinese forced a naval confrontation with the Japanese Navy, this could strengthen growing fears in the Asian region that China has started using  its military muscle to enforce its territorial claims. Today, the confrontation is with Japan in the East China Sea. Tomorrow, it could be with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. The day after,in Arunchal Pradesh with India over the Chinese claims to Indian territory in that area.

6. At the same time, there is a fear in China of the implications of a likely use of China’s naval force against Japan. It could strengthen anti-Chinese feelings in Japan and damage the considerable economic relations with Japan, without which the Chinese economic miracle would not have been possible.

7. After having stepped up diplomatic pressure against Japan—in vain so far—- the Chinese are trying to mobilise public pressure.Calls are going out through the Internet to Chinese netizens to demonstrate in Beijing against Japan on September 18 if the Japanese do not release the Captain by then and to boycott Japanese goods. Patriotism is a double-edged weapon. If it fails to intimidate Japan, it could acquire an anti-Japanese momentum of its own the consequences of which could be unpredictable.

8. These fears are reflected in the calls being made to Beijing by some of its analysts not to over-react by losing patience. Patriotism against Japan, yes, but with prudence so that the political leadership does not end up by dropping the stone of patriotism on its own feet instead of on the feet of Japan. This advice is reflected in an editorial on the subject carried by the party-controlled “Global Times” on September 16. The editorial is annexed. (16-9-10)

( The writer Mr B Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi , and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

ANNEXURE China should not be easily irritated

( “Global Times” editorial of September 16, 2010) The latest incident near the Diaoyu Islands has sparkled anti-Japanese sentiments among Chinese citizens.

After Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan won a party vote to stay in power, his ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, arrived at the Chinese foreign ministry later on Tuesday, asking China to take proper measures to prevent a worsening of the conflict between the two countries.

The Chinese government would never deliberately stir up domestic nationalism, because this will ultimately undermine China’s own social order and national prospects.

However, along with the emergence of a diversified society, ordinary Chinese now have more courage to express themselves. Media, especially the Internet, has become the main outlet that conveys grass-roots opinions on international issues.

What the Chinese government needs to do is to facilitate orderly and effective delivery of ordinary people’s voices to the outside world, whereas making sure that overly impulsive voices and actions will not bring about internal friction.

When it comes to national sovereignty and dignity, ordinary Chinese do have the right to express all kinds of notions, including radical ones.

A China without voices calling for a fight with Japan and boycotts against Japanese goods is not a real China with 1.3 billion people. But on the other hand, China has to ensure the rational transmission of various grass-roots voices. Violence that took place during the 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations should not be repeated.

China is often depicted as an “irritated” country in overseas media reports. China should stay cool-headed, because radical flames can burn down sober actions. Those who provoke China are often powerful and sophisticated diplomatic veterans. What they revere is actually cool-headed wisdom as well as the deliberation of countermeasures.

The mainstream notion of external affairs is healthy in China. The minority who try to kidnap patriotism and undermine social order will always exist.

How to restrain such “patriotic thieves” and facilitate the normal expression of social thoughts is also a part of China’s political enlightenment.

Bringing home the boat captain that is being illegally detained by Japanese authorities poses a challenge to both the Chinese government and ordinary people. It’s necessary to let Japan feel the threat from grass-roots Chinese against its interests.

Some grass-roots organizations should help common people express and act in a proper way. Only then will Japan show honest reverence toward grass-roots Chinese.

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