Saturday, September 25, 2010

Waterworld

The ugly dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, precipitated by an incident in which the captain of a fifteen-person Chinese fishing vessel was held in Okinawa after apparently deliberately ramming a Japanese Coast Guard vessel that was pursuing him, is now over.

From the Los Angeles Times:
Japan will release the Chinese fishing captain [Zhan Qixiong] whose detention after straying into disputed waters had enraged Beijing and spiraled into the worst diplomatic crisis to rile the long-contentious neighbors in years, prosecutors in southern Japan said Friday.

The abrupt announcement from Japan came as mounting pressure and threats from Beijing stirred fears of serious economic repercussions for the island nation.

"Considering the future of Japan-China relations and the possible consequences for the Japanese public, we decided that keeping the suspect in custody and continuing the investigation was not appropriate," Toru Suzuki, an official from the prosecutors' office in Naha, Okinawa, told NHK TV in Japan.
Even the Japan Times hints that Japan may have been caving in:
Toshikazu Inoue, a professor at Gakushuin University, said the release of the captain came at the worst possible time for Tokyo diplomatically, given that Japan was forced to yield to China.

"(The captain) should have been deported immediately after the incident occurred," Inoue said. "Or if not, he should have been thoroughly subjected to Japanese law and been indicted and put on trial — releasing him at this time was the worst possible thing to do."

Inoue said now that Japan has buckled, China might ease off. On the other hand, Inoue warned that China might continue to take the initiative on the territorial issue by using its increasing clout to exploit recent turbulence in Japanese-U.S. ties.
The Economist minced no words about how and why Japan gave in:
Japan’s prosecutors chose not to indict Mr Zhan on the grounds that his act was not premeditated, according to Kyodo, the Japanese news agency. But the real reason was the vehemence of China's reaction. Since the fishing crew and its captain were arrested, China has continually ratcheted up the pressure to have them returned. It cut diplomatic communications and even arrested four Japanese nationals, allegedly for filming in a restricted military area. China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports. And this may be true: there probably isn't a formal directive. But in a country where informal rules abound, exporters know that it can pay to withhold shipments—in solidarity with a government that is angry at its neighbour.
That's some serious crap right there, although I think threatening to withhold rare earth metals will eventually backfire in a big way, since it will simply lead other countries to step up their own mining efforts. My understanding is that China dominates these markets not because it is the only country that has these rare earth metals, but because it's the only country that had a viable mining business for them going on when their demand started to go into high gear. If they really keep threatening to manipulate the market in such a fashion, whether out of political spite or economic gain, how long before that all starts to change?

Anyway, news of the resolution brings to mind several points, many with repercussions for South Korea. For starters, this entire incident has actually made the Tokto-related vocal outbursts mixed with passive-aggressive posturing seem positively mature and diplomatic.

The diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing points to a very serious problem of which people with an interest in peace and stability in the region should take heed. Japan has several lingering and protracted territorial disputes with its neighbors (not just the Koreas but also Russia, China, and Taiwan) stemming from its imperial expansionism in the three-quarters of a century before the end of World War II. Make no mistake: these disputes are a perennial source of headaches for Japan, politically and, increasingly, economically. And as China becomes richer and richer, it has tried to assert its own version of regional hegemony, which is basically that they are the Middle Kingdom and rightful lords over the region and anyone in their sphere should prostrate themselves as they face the almighty Beijing. The corollary of that is that you will be slapped down for insolence if you dare question their legitimacy and/or dominance.

And those two problems, kiddies, are a dangerous combination. The waters around China are peppered with powder kegs, one of which could easily explode with grave consequences were the Pax Americana not in place. Clearly one of the things that needs to happen — and must happen before Pax American were ever to end — is for Japan to start settling these disputes in a peaceful manner. And to be honest, that is probably going to mean either expensive horse-trading or recognizing that the other side of the dispute should probably pretty much get what they're demanding (consider it the cost of waging a massive war in which most of the rest of the world doesn't see your side as the victims). [The Tokto dispute might be the easy one: Japan gives up claims to the islets it calls Takeshima in exchange for a treaty whereby South Korea recognizes an EEZ determined by Ullŭngdo, not Tokto, and a tacit approval of Japan's EEZ around the Okinotorishima Atoll out in the Pacific.]

China's shamefully shameless behavior during this recent dispute has also provided further evidence that China's neighbors should be wary of China's swagger. While the long-time hegemon in the region has been the United States, protector of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, it has been a relatively benign hegemon more interested in these allies getting rich and expanding trade with the US and each other than with any territorial designs.

China, on the other hand, is demonstrating more and more that it's primarily interested in turning the fence used to hem itself in into a chain of satellite tributaries bowing to the Chinese suzerain's every whim. It has resorted to kidnapping and hostage-taking of Japanese in this case, straight-out destruction of a US embassy in the past [left], and currently the deliberate and systemic demonization of Korea among the netizenry. It can't be said too often: China is China's biggest problem, and the sooner everyone — including China — realizes that, the better. Toward that end, I wonder if Japan and South Korea (and Taiwan) shouldn't start trying to diversify the destination of their investments, goods, and services. India's nice, I hear.

At the very least, I hope Seoul is paying attention to the ham-handedly unsubtle way China bullied Japan into kowtowing. I don't know if anyone at the Blue House or Yŏŭido is gloating, but they sure as hell shouldn't be. Hopefully they remember how Chinese fishermen have acted toward ROK maritime police when they were caught illegally trawling in South Korea's EEZ.

[UPDATE: I forgot about a 2008 incident, mentioned at ROK Drop, in which Chinese fishermen murdered a ROK Coast Guardsman.]

Of course, the incident with South Korea is different from that with Japan in one key way: the South Korean EEZ in question (to my knowledge) is not disputed waters, whereas those off Senkaku/Diaoyu certainly are. One could argue that the Chinese — who do not recognize Japanese claims to the islands — had no legal right to pursue Mr Zhan's ship in the first place, though that doesn't justify ramming the Japanese coast guard vessel, for which they may have been in their rights to detain him. At any rate, this is all the more reason to address my earlier point: this kind of incident is inevitable, and absent a regional hegemon acting as a ground plug, it could easily spark a much wider and deadlier incident.

And finally the incident spawned this Marmot's Hole commentary tidbit about China and South Korea:
As for Korea, that ship has sailed. It’s now only a matter of time before the peninsula effectively falls into China’s sphere of influence, even as it remains rich and free.
I find it rather telling that many of the Korea bashers who hammer away at the ROK-US relationship (e.g., fighting the FTA, advocating an end to the military alliance or USFK presence, decrying South Korea as free riders, etc.) and wish to dismantle the Pax Americana that has ensured stability in Northeast Asia for the past fifty-seven years, are the same ones who gleefully report that Korea has already fallen prey to Big Brother China (or should in the future).

Someone in Korea must have really done a number on some of these folks for them to be wishing something as nasty as Chinese domination on a whole country (or two).

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