Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2010.12.06

China Fishing Boat Collision

At the beginning of September, the captain of a Chinese fishing boat and his crew were arrested by Japanese authorities when their trawler collided with a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat near the Senkaku islands. In both Japan and China, this incident provoked strong reactions. Now, the captain and his crew already have been released and the governments of both countries are starting to move towards calming the situation. The confrontation may drag on, however. As a Japanese citizen, I am interested in the following issues.

First, when there are differences in opinions and conflicts occur, society must determine which sides to a dispute rest on legitimate bases. Absent this approach, human history would have been replete with conflicts and the human race may already have become extinct. It may go without saying but, when one examines the confrontation arising out of the aforementioned incident, one begins to doubt if this kind of a basic analysis has taken.

From the Chinese, I have heard nothing but the assertion that the Senkaku islands are Chinese territory; no basis for that assertion is stated. If the lack of a basis for the claim arises from my lack of knowledge, I readily apologize and stand prepared to make immediate correction.

The territorial assertion of the Japanese government, by contrast, is based on legal and historical facts -- that Japan has, in effect, controlled the Senkaku islands since the Meiji era. Quite some number may find unreasonable the Japanese government's explanation that there is no territorial dispute regarding the Senkaku islands. The fact is that, for so long as China asserts territorial control over these islands, a dispute in fact exists, however groundless the Chinese assertion may be.

Many Japanese are willing to analyze the present confrontation and assess whether the actions of either side are justifiable. At least, those with whom I have been in touch have this open-mindedness and remain cool headed. As individuals, however, they only have a limited ability to examine whether the two sides have justifications for their actions. When two nations have territorial disputes, both of the parties often have grounds to claim the disputed territory; these arguments are complex and it can be very difficult for average persons to comprehend them. This difficulty is equally true with respect to the territorial claims of the Japanese or Chinese governments with respect to the Senkaku islands. Citizens can see, to a certain extent, what grounds there are and how they can interpret the international laws but, in the end, they have to rely on their government. Citizens make up their minds by heeding the arguments of their governments. The Japanese will act based on claims made by their government, just as the Chinese will do based on their government's claims.

Some Chinese contend that the Senkaku islands belong to China and, for this reason, they are applying pressure on their government. At least, this is the impression I get from newspaper reports. If this is, in fact, the case, that is problematic. Of course, it is not just the Chinese people who are more ardent in their assertions than their government and who, therefore, criticize the government for being weak: over time, the world has seen many such cases. In the past, we Japanese have behaved just like this and one cannot say that the danger of such behavior is entirely non-existent today. Regardless of whether it is the Chinese or the Japanese, it is dangerous to make unsupported territorial claims, at the risk of being consumed by narrow-minded nationalism. If a Chinese individual wishes to lodge a more forceful claim to Chinese sovereignty over the Senkaku islands, he/she needs to research the basis for such a claim and apply international law correctly.

Secondly, I am not claiming that citizens should always follow their government. On the contrary, citizens sometimes need to make demands of their government. It is of crucial importance that both governments deal with the situation based on rules. The people of both Japan and China need to demand that their governments examine rules and solve the issue based on these rules. Such rules would include not only international law, but domestic laws and agreements between the two governments.

The Chinese often refer to Deng Xiaoping's remarks, in which he expressed the hope that the next generation would solve the Senkaku conflict. In short, it seems that the Chinese are deeming the absence of an agreement to be itself an agreement, and that the absence of rules is itself a set of rules. One sees this tendency among not just the Chinese but, regrettably, among some Japanese as well.

From a rule-based perspective, the Japanese government's decision to release the Chinese captain is questionable. During a press conference announcing their decision to release him, prosecutors claimed that they were releasing the captain based on their "taking into consideration effects on the Japanese public and the future Japan-China relations." Their action does not seem to be based on rules. We can be proud of the tradition of our Japanese judiciary to apply the laws strictly. This has been a part of our education. I fear that the prosecutors' decision in this instance distorted the judicial process by putting more weight on political considerations. If future judicial proceedings are arbitrarily molded to conform to the state of Japan-China relations, those who engage in business activities in China will have no peace of mind.

Thirdly, the latest incident is not simply a matter of rules. China stopped gas field negotiations, exchanges at the ministerial level, exports of rare earth metals to Japan, arrested Japanese businessmen, and demanded that Japan apologize for arresting the Chinese captain and pay compensation. Japanese perceived these Chinese actions as harassment.

We need to be careful here. How a country responds to harassment is very difficult. This is because the harassment is not in clear violation of rules, and those who feel being harassed are not always right. Indeed, sometimes, harassment is just imagination. This may apply to the dispute in the Senkaku islands.

Regrettably, harassment is prevalent in human society. Everyone experiences it to a certain extent. Citizens are capable of realizing when harassment raises delicate issues and, in general, react according to the seriousness of the situation. The Japanese people and their government should be able to cope with the incident with their customary astuteness and sagacity.

It is regrettable that, though, in different ways, both the Japanese and the Chinese have lost equanimity. We can expect various turns of events before we see a restoration of normalcy. I, for one, believe, however, that the two countries will reestablish a constructive relationship.