To see a note from the editor, click here.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

A Reply to the 'China Bystander'

The China Bystander has today posed the question: with its demands for a formal apology from Tokyo and compensation for the Chinese trawler captain detained by the Japanese for over two weeks, has Beijing in fact overplayed its hand? China is continuing to insist that Japan accepts the responsibility for the tensions that have arisen between the two nations in recent weeks- moves that the Japanese government has (according to the BBC) dismissed as “totally groundless”. Following this theme, the People's Daily is placing the ball firmly in the Japanese court, running today with the headline “Japan needs to mend China ties with genuine, practical moves”.

China's apparent determination to press its point home now that Japan has released the trawler captain without charge reflects how quickly the whole affair became a matter of principle rather than practice. However, Beijing's persistence is likely to have a severe adverse effect on its international image. Some observers saw in Japan's decision to release the captain a clear attempt to diffuse the situation with a minimal loss of face. Rather than acknowledging this by letting the dust settle, China has sought to capitalise on Japanese weakness. As a result, it is rapidly losing its image as a 'victim' and gaining a reputation for manipulating diplomatic rifts to its maximum possible advantage.

Therefore, to all intents and purposes, China has indeed overplayed its hand. By stringing the row out, the PRC has undermined its initial objections to Japan's detention of its citizen- namely by showing its motives were more about the politics than the person. Of course, many observers were able to read through the lines of China's appeals for the release of its citizen, and were hardly surprised that the controversy morphed into a debate over sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Chinese government now looks like it is deliberately trying to cause further tension- a fact that will not endear it to its Asian or global counterparts. The long-term harm to China's reputation and standing on the world stage may be great indeed.


  1. There is a possibility that China is overplaying its hand to calm hot-blooded nationalists (who are not members of the Communist Party) in China, who are demanding more.

    If unsatisfied, nationalists could form large protests and cause riots leading to more problems that China's central government would rather avoid.

    All this verbal jousting is a means to satisfy the hot bloods among the Chinese and from what I've been reading, there are many who are angry.

    By over reacting, the central government is saving face in China where it counts. If the central government appears weak, many in China will see this as a loss of face, which might undermine the government's authority at home.

    This happened when the US had the spy plane incident early in the G.W. Bush administration. Eventually, Bush said he was sorry twice and that appeared to calm down the overreaction of nationalists who wanted nothing less than American blood.

    The same thing happened under Clinton when the CIA accidently targeted a Chinese consulate in the Balkans and hit it with a 500-pound guided bomb killing the Chinese citizen within.

  2. But the recent protests in China demanding the release of the captain were a relatively low-key affair, which suggests that ultra-nationalist feeling is not as strong as you suggest. I also don't think China has any face to save- it never deviated from its message that Japan's actions were illegal, and has come out from the affair looking the stronger of the two nations. This analysis is, again, relevant to the discussion:

  3. I would disagree that China overplayed its hand, in fact I think doing this only plays to China advantage, mainly because it has united with its so called enemy Taiwan. Taiwan and Japan have numerous encounters in that region where Japanese Military ships have sunk Taiwanese boats and killed Taiwanese fishermen and Taiwan was unable to react to Japan's aggression. Now with this incident, China has Taiwan's back. This incident probably strengthen political ties between Taiwan and China.

  4. That's a good point- the benefit to cross-Strait relations is certainly something to consider. However, i don't think that the gains made in this area merit the further breakdown of relations with Japan. China's economic links with Taiwan have been steadily improving in recent months, and i reckon this trend would have continued irrespective of the Diaoyu affair. With more economic co-operation often comes political co-operation too (though i admit that that is speculation in this case). The harm to China's image on the Asian and international stages far outweighs the gains made vis a vis Taiwan.

  5. Why is China's image harmed? Western view of the Chinese government was never good anyways so how can it get worse?

    The endless condemnation by China at the Japanese government and Japanese government blinked. Unlike the Cheonan incident, the Chinese government did not make any announcements of war games. The Chinese, Taiwan, and Hong Kong government made numerous assertions about the sovereignty of the Daiyou Islands. Except for Japan, none of the other countries seem to have contested the sovereignty of the Daiyou islands, including the US.

  6. Well, China has been trying cultivate a new image for itself as a responsible, global power (Beijing 2008, Expo 2010 etc.) Unfortunately, the recent tension with Japan has revealed a foreign policy mentality that is still sensitive and, at times, aggressive. This is bound to make other nations cautious/wary, particularly China's neighbours in Asia...

  7. Its all a bit of theatre to distract from whats going on in N Korea.


Make a comment...

Contact Us

To contact Sino-Gist, please email