China-Japan Maritime Dispute Suggests China May Sense a Weakening in U.S.-Japan Ties

By Patrick Goodenough | September 17, 2010 | 5:03 AM EDT

A detained Chinese fishing trawler is flanked by two Japanese coast guard vessels during an investigation by Japanese authorities in Okinawa Prefecture on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Ji Chunpeng)

( on Friday appeared to be ramping up its most serious diplomatic dispute with Japan in years, by preparing to drill in a long-disputed gas field in the East China Sea.

Routine Japanese surveillance flights have witnessed the shipment of equipment to an offshore facility in the area, the Kyodo news agency reported. It quoted unnamed government sources as saying workers at the facility appeared to be making preparations for drilling.

A former Bush administration official said in Tokyo Wednesday that China may have sensed a chill in U.S.-Japan relations, and was attempting to exploit it.

The development comes after more than a week of wrangling triggered by an at-sea collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese coast guard vessels in the disputed area.

Japan detained the trawler, but later released it and 14 crew members while keeping the captain in custody. Accused of ramming the Japanese vessels deliberately, the captain is due to appear in court on Sunday. He also is suspected of illegal fishing in Japanese territorial waters.

Enraged over the affair, Beijing canceled a senior lawmaker’s visit to Japan and summoned the Japanese ambassador no less than five times to demand that the captain be released without prosecution.

Japanese officials also said a bilateral meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of next week’s U.N. General Assembly opening in New York would not take place.

Chinese protesters demonstrate outside the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong on Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

With Japan having stuck to its guns over the captain, anti-Japanese protests are planned in some Chinese cities this weekend. Demonstrations in 2004 over the territorial dispute and other sensitive bilateral issues left the Japanese consulate and several Japanese-owned businesses in Shanghai damaged.

Both countries hope to exploit the gas reserves in the disputed area, which lies northeast of Taiwan, about halfway between China and Okinawa, Japan. A nearby group of uninhabited islands – called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China – is controlled by Japan but claimed by China. Taiwan also claims the islands.

China and Japan last May agreed to hold talks over the joint exploration of the gasfield, but China has now canceled a scheduled meeting.

Japan’s mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun daily said in an editorial Friday that China’s leaders were likely playing “hardball” because if ordinary Chinese viewed their government as weak, “it could ignite simmering public discontent over the country’s economic disparities and other ills, which could escalate into anger directed at the Chinese Communist Party leadership.”

“This fear has apparently driven the Chinese government to take a high-handed stance toward Japan over the collisions,” it said.

The dispute comes at a time of political uncertainty in Japan. Kan on Tuesday deflected a challenge to his leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and on Friday announced a sweeping cabinet reshuffle.

Incoming foreign minister Seiji Maehara on Thursday inspected the damaged coastguard vessel (in his then capacity of transportation minister), and said they had clearly been hit hard. He said the Chinese trawler captain would receive fair treatment under Japanese law.

As with other Chinese territorial disputes in the South China Sea – where it has differences with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia – the Senkaku-Diaoyu issue arises from the presence of natural resources in areas where countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) overlap.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows coastal countries to claim EEZs extending 200 nautical miles from their shores.

In the South China Sea, China has become more assertive in its claims, and last March a visiting senior U.S. official was informed that Beijing considers the South China Sea a “core interest” – a term it has customarily used for issues like Taiwan and Tibet.

Washington’s response came in July, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a regional security forum in Hanoi that it was a U.S. “national interest” to see freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi retorted that the region could resolve its differences without outside “interference.”

In Tokyo on Wednesday, former U.S. Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage said at the Japan National Press Club that he believed China had detected “a definite chill” in U.S.-Japan ties and was “taking advantage of that chill.”

Relations between the long-time allies cooled somewhat after the center-left DPJ’s rise to power in August 2009, ending almost six decades of rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The DPJ’s Yukio Hatoyama took office as prime minister having promised to move a U.S. Marines base off Okinawa, but he resigned over the summer after failing to keep that pledge.

Japan and the U.S. in 2006 negotiated an agreement to relocate the Futenma base from its current location in a densely-populated area of Okinawa to a quieter part of the island.

Once in government the DPJ tried to reopen that agreement, but the U.S. has stuck with the painstakingly crafted deal.

Apart from the Futenma relocation, it also provides for 8,000 U.S. Marines, and 9,000 of their dependents, to be relocated from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam, by 2014.

Asked this week whether China was perhaps taking a tough line over the trawler incident because it believed the U.S.-Japan relationship was not as strong as it used to be, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley described the bilateral alliance as “a cornerstone of security and stability across Asia.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow