Tangles in China-Japan Ties

China will pursue its long-term interests with Japan despite border incident, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld
A protester carries a cake calling for Japan to get out of the Diaoyu islands outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, Sept. 18, 2010.

BOSTON—A heated dispute over offshore borders is likely to be only a temporary setback to relations between China and Japan, U.S. analysts say.

Despite friction over Japan's detention of a Chinese fishing vessel in contested waters of the East China Sea on Sept. 7, the two Asian economic powers are seen as having too much at stake to risk their overriding interests.

"There is a tremendous amount of activity between China and Japan," said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Neither one thinks that they can have the kind of future they envision without having a reasonable relationship with the other," said Lieberthal, who served as special assistant for national security affairs to former President Bill Clinton.

The incident leading to Japan's arrest of the Chinese boat captain reignited a conflict over competing claims to islands known as Diayou in China and Senkaku in Japan.

China has summoned Japan's ambassador six times to lodge protests following the trawler's collision with Japanese patrol vessels nearly two weeks ago.

On Sept. 12, China's top foreign policy official, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, warned Tokyo "not to make a wrong judgment" on pursuing the case, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Japan released 14 crew members on Sept. 13, but on Sunday prosecutors extended the detention of the boat's captain, Zhan Qixiong, for 10 days following a court ruling.

China has postponed scheduled talks on the border issue, dealing with offshore oil development and halted all ministerial and provincial-level exchanges.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara has rejected China's criticism of the arrest, saying the islands are an "integral part of Japanese territory," the Associated Press reported.

On Sunday, China's Foreign Ministry warned of "strong counter-measures" if the captain is not released.

Relations likely unaffected

But the dispute is not expected to derail China's growing economic interests with Japan. Last year, trade between the two countries totaled over U.S. $261 billion, according to Japanese data.

In the first half of 2010, China became Japan's top trade partner, accounting for over 20 percent of its international business, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) said last month.

Japan is China's third-largest partner after the European Union and the United States, the official English-language China Daily said.

The fishing furor interrupted a positive trend in relations, promoted by China's leaders.

"China and Japan are among the most important economies worldwide," said Premier Wen Jiabao at an economic dialogue meeting between the two countries in Beijing on Aug. 29.

"Enhancement of bilateral cooperation will not only benefit both sides but also help ... the recovery of the world economy."

Lieberthal said the age-old conflicts between the two countries are bound to surface periodically, despite the economic incentives to setting them aside.

"At the same time, there are a lot of areas of tension and there are a lot of people in each country who don't trust the other," said Lieberthal, but he added that cooler heads are likely to prevail.

"I don't think any serious leader on either side thinks that somehow or other they can go to a consistently hostile policy toward the other and end up better for the effort," he said. "That just isn't the reality out there."

Contested islands

The uninhabited islands between Taiwan and Okinawa have sparked discord for decades.

Japan has controlled them since 1972 and for some 50 years before the end of World War II, but China argues its sovereignty dates back centuries. The islands are also claimed by Taiwan.

The area has gained economic importance since 2003 when China and Japan clashed over offshore drilling rights. In 2008, the two countries agreed in principle to jointly develop underwater gas fields, but the latest spat has stymied the talks.

On Sept. 17, Japan's former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said China was apparently shipping drilling equipment to the disputed Chunxiao field, which Japan calls Shirakaba.

China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman did not confirm the activity but asserted the country's "full sovereign and jurisdictional rights" to the area.

Michael Swaine, senior associate in the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the plans to share the resources without resolving the sovereignty issue were controversial in China.

"The understanding that was emerging at the time was very strongly criticized within China," said Swaine. "It was looked upon as an excessive concession by the Chinese government."

In that atmosphere, the arrest of the trawler's captain after colliding with Japanese patrol ships is serious enough to disrupt progress.

"I think they could get to an agreement to jointly develop this area," said Swaine. "But the larger context within which China and Japan are interacting, at the very least, has to be stable if not supportive of this kind of forward movement."

Even if a final agreement is reached on the offshore deposits, relations may be subject to sporadic border incidents. Nationalist groups in both countries have threatened to set sail for the islands to assert sovereignty claims.

"I still think there will disruptions," said Swaine. "The territorial disputes have not been resolved by any means."

The long-term direction of China's policy toward Japan appears aimed at controlling such setbacks, however.

"To my mind, it's a pretty strong policy, certainly on the diplomatic and political side," Swaine said. "The Chinese government wants to improve relations with Tokyo."


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