The three Chinese ships had entered Japan’s EEZ waters after 4 a.m. on the 11th. They were met, followed, and ordered out of the EEZ by Japanese Self Defense Force ships. They finally departed just after 8 a.m.
Later in the day, Japan’s deputy foreign minister summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and delivered a formal protest over the Chinese “intrusion.”
At the time, Japan’s foreign minister, Gemba Koichiro, was in Phnom Penh attending the ASEAN foreign ministers’ summit. That day, the 11th, Gemba met in a hotel with Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi. The meeting was scheduled to take 30 minutes. It continued for 50 minutes.
This could not have been a pleasant meeting. Very likely, it was lacking in the normal diplomatic decorum. Seemingly overnight, Japan-China relations have turned icy, bitter, and emotionally charged.
The Gemba-Yang meeting was the first since Prime Minister Noda announced on July 7 that it had become Japanese policy for the central government to purchase the uninhabited Senkaku islands–now privately owned by Japanese interests and administered by Okinawa prefecture–that are also claimed by China, which calls the chain “Diaoyutai.”
Gemba’s talking points with Yang were scripted by Noda who had told reporters on July 7: “There can be no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory, both under international law and from a historical point of view. The Senkakus are under the effective control of our nation, and there is no territorial issue with any country over the islands.” (The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 8.)
How Yang responded we can only guess. We can imagine that the two men talked—or shouted—past each other, uttering almost identical, conflicting positions.
The incursion of the three Chinese vessels was plainly a response to Noda’s announcement, and a signal from China that “nationalization” of the islands by Japan would be met by further escalation.
Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro first touted in April the idea of purchasing the islands, now owned by a man from Saitama prefecture, by Tokyo municipality. Since then he has continued to advance this idea, setting up a special team in the Tokyo government under his direct control, and raising donations from around the country that reportedly now total more than JPY 1.3 billion (USD 165 million)
Ishihara’s announcement drew a furious response from Beijing. Also, a public comment from Japan’s ambassador to China, Niwa Uichiro, a former president of one of Japan’s largest general trading companies (sogoshosha), C. Itoh & Co.
“If Ishihara’s plan is implemented, it will produce a crisis in Sino-Japan relations. We cannot let it ruin everything we’ve done in past decades,” Niwa was quoted as saying by the Financial Times on June 7.
This statement raised hackles in nationalist circles and in both major Japanese political parties. To hard-liners, such a statement displayed weakness and lack of resolve, and sent the wrong message to China.
PM Noda seems to have hoped to quell some of the controversy and unify Japan’s response by “centralizing” Ishihara’s initiative and making it a national government initiative.
The confrontation between Japan and China on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai issue has escalated to a truly dangerous level. Objectively it must be stated that it has been Japan that has done the most to raise tensions. Further escalation cannot be in the interests of either side. While his leadership in domestic policy matters has generally been laudable, even brilliant, in relations with China on this issue he seems captive to interests that would lead Japan into a trap.
When Japan and China established diplomatic relations in 1972, Premier Zhou Enlai agreed that the issue of Daiyutai (Senkaku) could be put to one side until the time for resolution “was ripe.” In 1978, when the two countries concluded an historic peace treaty, Deng Xiaoping said of the issue that it could be settled by “our children and grandchildren.”
Japan seems compelled to force the issue with China, while China would very likely be satisfied to live with the status quo, as long as Japan would acknowledge that it too has a claim on the islands and surrounding area. Diplomatic negotiation of some kind of modus vivendi and mutual efforts at resource development and safe-guarding navigation would be possible on this basis.
Nothing so positive seems likely under current trends. Quite the opposite. Increasing, and increasingly dangerous, confrontation seems to lie ahead.
By Stephen Harner, Forbes Contributor