The current spike in bilateral tensions between Japan and China suggests that Beijing has decided to maintain its assertive stance on the regional seas. Beijing’s strong stance comes after, despite, and maybe because of two US interventions on maritime issues – first, through a declaration, at the ASEAN conference in July, that Washington saw stability in the South China Sea as a "national interest"; and second, with naval exercises alongside South Korea in the Yellow Sea near one of China’s maritime borders.
The incident is seemingly minor, but may have serious ramifications. In September, Japanese naval vessels detained 15 Chinese fishermen following a collision near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan subsequently released 14 of the fishermen but continues to hold the captain of the ship pending his prosecution for offences under Japanese fishing laws. The move prompted a strong response from China, which claims the islands as sovereign Chinese territory. Beijing suspended bilateral links at ministerial and provincial levels, and sent a strongly worded statement to Tokyo. Protests also took place in Beijing against Japanese actions, although the government was careful to manage the protests and not let them spiral out of control (as happened in 2004). Japan also announced plans to send a drilling rig into the disputed area as a further demonstration of its intent to reassert its claims of sovereign control, but has called on China to rein in nationalist feeling.
The spat is a touch disappointing for those hoping for better relations between the region’s two giants. Japan’s ties with China had improved in the last few years, owing to the departure from office of prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine had severely damaged bilateral links. However, this spat raises the prospect of a return to the shrivelled relations of the first part of this decade - an unwelcome prospect given that Japan and China are in a symbiotic economic relationship (albeit of a different nature than that between the US and China), and that stability in the region is partly predicated on effective communication across the East China Sea.
This incident’s main significance, though, may be that China is taking a firm stance and highlighting the importance of disputed maritime issues such as the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This move is a marked departure from Deng Xiaoping’s determination that China should play it low key in international relations. Willy Lam also states, in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, that at the same time a debate is under way in foreign policy circles in China about how widely to define "core interests", with the conservatives (including many military commentators) wanting to classify even remote interests – such as Chinese shipping in distant waters – as such. Meanwhile diplomats and more moderate thinkers argue that such a move would prompt a harsh reaction from other states.
This current spat, then, may suggest that at least on immediate maritime issues the conservatives in Beijng have the upper hand, an unnerving prospect for China’s near neighbours. The situation is also worrying for China, though, since the vague nature of maritime boundaries, and this seemingly stronger line taken by Beijing, may render the country vulnerable to deliberate efforts to stoke tension in the region; indeed, all a state needs to do to ratchet up tensions (perhaps to justify a defence budget or a shift in policy of some sort) is engineer a "fisherman gone astray" scenario. Such heightened tensions would benefit a range of regional players, but perhaps most of all Washington, which is currently seeking to present itself to China’s neighbours as the honest broker providing security to all.
So is declaring these seas "core interests" simply handing over a hostage to the American "Fight China brigade"?
Kit Dawnay is an independent foreign policy analyst specialising in East Asian international affairs and finance. He has worked for a defence services company, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and as a newspaper journalist. He lives in Hong Kong.