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Friday, 10 September 2010

Sailing Close to the Wind

One of the main talking points in the Chinese media in the last few days has been over the arrest of the captain and crew of a Chinese fishing boat on Wednesday. The day beforehand, the captain's boat had collided with two Japanese patrol boats near islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both China and Japan as part of their territory.

According to the BBC, Yang Jiechi (China's foreign minister) has today summoned Japan's ambassador to the PRC (Uichiro Niwa) to Beijing for a 3rd time, and China is reportedly in the process of despatching a “law enforcement boat” to the region to protect the fisherman and their interests. The China Daily is also reporting that the detained captain and his crew have been handed over to local Japanese prosecutors- a move that China is (not surprisingly) condemning.

In the BBC's coverage of the story, its diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus describes the “The exchange of protests between China and Japan [as having] something of the air of a ritual.” In the opinion of Marcus, China is going through the motions as one would expect it to do in such an incident, and he comments that “neither country seems to want to dramatise the incident.” This seems a fair reading of the situation. It was never going to be the case that China would let the incident go by without strongly asserting its right to the disputed islands. In addition, as recent events have shown, China routinely makes no secret of its continued suspicions of Japanese intentions and the past history between the two nations.

However, as analysts including Marcus are suggesting, this current controversy demonstrates very clearly the tension that still exists in the region, and indeed shows how choppy the waters of Sino-Japanese relations can be. With Japan becoming every more concerned about China's expanding naval capacities and its possible maritime intentions, the disputed islands could represent a real flashpoint in the future. The China Daily quoted a Chinese academic as saying that “Tokyo lacked foresight in dealing with China”- the rather blinkered approach to foreign policy in the region by both sides might spark off more severe troubles in the future, when who has control of the islands is likely to become a more pressing issue.

In time, one would hope that the fisherman are returned safely to China, and the incident is ironed out. For now, national ego might prevent a speedy resolution to the problem, although pressure from the international community on both sides would do no harm. After recent positives like Japanese ministers staying away from the controversial Yasakuni Shrine, the emphasis should be on moving forward rather than looking back.

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