A lot of analysts may have ‘rushed to judgment’ concerning the recent East China Sea conflict between Tokyo and Beijing.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that Japan “blinked” under Chinese pressure by releasing unconditionally the captain of a fishing vessel at the center of the dispute. But there is little evidence to back up that contention.
At an early stage, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku took charge of the issue in Tokyo for the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. No snub of newly-named Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara or the Foreign Ministry was intended. Sengoku and Kan just wanted to make clear that the Japanese government at the highest levels was running the show.
In fact, Maehara, a supposed hawk on China issues, was on board with the policy to release the ship's captain. He apparently gave Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a hint of things to come during their meeting in New York on September 23.
The government had several objectives. First was to reinforce long-standing policy that Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands is nonnegotiable. The Chinese fishing boat in question had rammed a Japanese Coast Guard cutter, causing considerable damage, while illegally located inside Japanese territorial waters. The matter, as far as Tokyo was concerned, was for local law enforcement authorities to handle; emphasis on local law enforcement highlighted Japanese territorial sovereignty.
Early release of the ship’s crew was routine.
As China escalated tensions, Sengoku’s next objective was to secure clear backing from the United States that the Senkaku Islands fall under the jurisdiction of the US-Japan Security Treaty. US policy since the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1972 has been that ultimate determination of sovereignty over the Senkakus is a matter for Japan and China to work out peacefully, but for now the islands are under the administrative control of Japan, and therefore come under the jurisdiction of the bilateral security treaty.
The Obama administration never hesitated. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her September 23 meeting with Maehara in New York, forcefully said “of course they do,” when the issue of the Senkakus falling within the realm of the security treaty arose. Defense Secretary Bob Gates was equally blunt that day, telling reporters inquiring about the dispute that “we would fulfill our alliance obligations.”
Sengoku’s next objective was that Japan be seen as acting in a calm and measured manner, in contrast to the image of China as a unreasonable antagonist that quickly emerged. He told reporters that he wanted to avoid “extreme nationalism” in either Beijing or Tokyo from exploiting the issue.
Since last July, the Kan government had been an enthusiastic supporter of Secretary of State Clinton’s initiative, launched at an ASEAN meeting in Hanoi, to ensure that territorial disputes in the South China Sea be settled peacefully. That principle was reinforced when President Obama met with ASEAN leaders in New York on September 24. The message from the meeting was implicitly critical of China, which recently has haughtily been claiming sovereignty over virtually all disputed territories in the South China Sea.
As many analysts have noted, China’s demeanor toward Japan in the recent East China Sea dispute has made a shambles of its ‘charm offensive’ in the region that earlier had seemed to bear some diplomatic fruit for Beijing.
Sengoku also wanted to make sure Beijing had a face-saving way to deescalate the dispute. Sengoku is not convinced that the Chinese leadership planned the ramming of the Japanese Coast Guard vessel as a deliberate provocation.
Finally, Japanese officials have quietly pointed out that Japan remains in firm administrative control of the Senkakus. China has made no overt moves to challenge that physical status quo, even if annoying, regular violations of Japanese territory by Chinese fishing vessels, and a few disturbing ‘shoulder-bumping’ incidents recently between military units in the area, might be forerunners of future escalations.
Should such an escalation take place, Japan has in place the local forces (a very formidable Coast Guard that is borderline military in capabilities) to deal with relatively minor skirmishes, followed by the Maritime and Air Self Defense Forces. In the background is the US-Japan alliance, and regional diplomatic support.
In this context, Japan had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by releasing the detained fishing boat captain. Tokyo never had any intention of putting the vessel captain on trial. His release was inevitable. Having met all of his objectives, Sengoku saw no need to draw out the detention.
The Cabinet has made a considered judgment to couch the captain’s release as a decision made by local authorities, free of political considerations. That’s a diplomatic fig-leaf, of course, which reinforces the principle of Japan’s legal system having jurisdiction in the area, while providing Tokyo with political and diplomatic flexibility.
Tokyo came up short somewhat in coordination with the local authorities, a fact that highlighted the DPJ’s relative lack of diplomatic experience. But that seems to be a minor wrinkle in what otherwise was an effective and responsible performance by the DPJ.
DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada, who gained considerable respect for his recently-concluded stint as foreign minister, forcefully defended the Cabinet’s actions during a television appearance in Tokyo on Sunday with his counterparts from opposition parties. Naturally, the LDP’s Ishihara and the YP’s Eda lambasted the DPJ’s handling of the incident. But they provided little in the way of specific alternatives that would have improved the outcome for Japan.