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China ire at sea chase signals wider reach

September 19, 2010

By Peter J Brown
Asia Times
September 16, 2010

In early September, the Minjinyu 5179 was one of
160 Chinese fishing boats working near the Diaoyu
(called Senkaku in Japanese) Islands, which
occupy the far southwestern corner of Japanese territory close to Taiwan.

And then a chase, and a collision took place.

Photos taken from a distance days later show the
bow of the Minjinyu 5179 almost unblemished,
while other photos clearly show missing paint and
several dents on the hull of the Japanese Coast
Guard (JCG) patrol vessel Mizuki.

This might appear at first glance to be little
more than the result of poor seamanship while the
two ships were underway. Instead, this is
photographic evidence of an incident that has
mushroomed into a major diplomatic dispute between Japan and China.

The Chinese see the incident as much more than an
attempt by Japan to make it increasingly
difficult for Chinese fishing boats to work near the disputed island group.

"Japan cannot intimidate or antagonize China
without serious consequences," blared the Global
Times on September 14, several days after the incident. [1]

Japan alleged that the Minjinyu 5179 was fishing
illegally in Japanese waters - Chinese vessels
are allowed to fish around the Senkaku Islands
and well inside the boundaries of Japan's
exclusive economic zone - and that the captain of
the Chinese vessel, Zhan Qixiong, failed to
respond to Japanese orders to halt and then
deliberately rammed the Mizuki northwest of
Kubashima Island. He ultimately came to a stop
two hours later, doing so after colliding with another JCG ship.

What exactly Zhan did to draw the attention of
the JCG is unclear - granted he was less than 20
km from the closest island at one point - because
this was not one of the busiest fishing days in
terms of the number of Chinese vessels operating in the area.

Regardless, the Minjinyu 5179 was seized, along
with the captain and crew. The 14 crew members
have gone home but Zhan remains in confinement in
Okinawa prefecture until September 19, barring an earlier release.

"It will be the last straw for Beijing if Japan
insists on trying the Chinese captain for his
fishing operation off the Diaoyu Islands, in the
East China Sea," said the Global Times. "Although
Japanese leaders hope the fishing boat issue will
be seen as a stand-alone incident and will not
hurt the two countries' normal relations, it is
impossible for China's protest to remain verbal only."

After making it clear that "Japan's handling of
the case is seen as a direct challenge of China's
sovereignty over the contended islands", the
Global Times issued this stern warning:

Suspension of the East China Sea gas field talks,
scheduled for mid-September, is the first move of
China's counter strike. Given the decades of
relationship building after WWII, China will
probably not resort to force over this incident.
But, if the protests from the Chinese government
and public don't bring the Japanese back from the
brink of a relations breakdown, Beijing has to
consider stronger retaliatory measures.

Other obvious moves include the suspension of a
high-level visit to Japan by a senior Chinese
government official, and a series of awkward
maneuvers southwest of Okinawa between Chinese
maritime patrol ships and Japanese survey vessels
which suggested that more confrontations could soon occur.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu
said the Japanese actions as a whole in this
instance violated the law of nations and were
"ridiculous, illegal and invalid".

"Japan will reap as it has sown, if it continues
to act recklessly," Jiang warned.

Is this more than an untimely error on the part
of a Chinese fishing boat captain? After all, any
attempt by China to fabricate an incident at sea
involving a Chinese commercial or fishing vessel
would not come as a surprise. While the focus
previously has been primarily on the South China
Sea, it is possible that China may also be
preparing to make more aggressive moves in the East China Sea. [2]

Strangely, the Chinese media has attempted to
highlight Taiwan's role here as well. Taiwan has
long claimed sovereignty over what it calls the
Tiaoyutai Islands - its name for the
Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, located approximately 150 km from its northeast coast.

As the tensions were rising, Taiwanese
immigration and Coast Guard officials quickly
ended a plan by activists from Hong Kong and
Macau to sail on a small flotilla of Taiwanese
fishing boats to the islands. Not all the
Taiwanese boats proceeded, and those that did
were under strict orders to engage in sport
fishing only and not any closer than 40 km from
the shores of the disputed islands, an activity
which is permitted. Only Taiwanese citizens were on board.

Taiwan's stance here was misrepresented by the
Global Times, for example, as the flotilla in
question was identified as one sailing in support of China's claim.

Global Times not only made the mistake of
overlooking past confrontations over the same
islands involving Taiwan and Japan including the
2008 sinking of a large Taiwanese fishing vessel
after a collision with Japanese warship, but it
put the spotlight on the Taiwanese claim of
sovereignty - via references to the role of
Taiwan's navy - in a way that only served the
purposes of those in favor of maintaining Taiwan's independence.

"Chan Miu-tak, of the Hong Kong-based Action
Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, said
he is prepared for the possibility that he may be
detained by the Japanese at Taoyuan International
Airport in Taiwan," said Global Times.

"An employee of the Taiwan Coastal Patrol Office
said that two or three naval ships that patrol in
the northwest maritime space of Taiwan will
protect the activists if there is any incident." [3]

In another editorial, in which Global Times
elected to omit the 2008 incident entirely, it
called attention to Japan's calm and cool-headed
approach the situation in the past.

"The Japanese government has avoided using force
in recent years when dealing with fishing boats
from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan near the Diaoyu Islands." [4]

A legal scholar with the Shanghai Academy of
Social Sciences and Chinese Maritime Development
Research Center, Jin Yongming, documented how
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi used harsh language
when he demanded that the Japanese ambassador to
China, Uichiro Niwa, inform his government that
Japan needed to release the entire Chinese crew
and the fishing boat immediately.

Jin then adopted a rather hard tone to play
perhaps to a growing sense of resentment in China
that threatens to undermine warming relations between Japan and China.

"Japan infringed upon China's sovereignty and
territory integrity when Japanese patrol ships
chased the Chinese fishing trawler and boarded it
forcibly. But the Japanese Coast Guard did not
stop at that. It even applied Japanese law in the
waters off the Diaoyu Islands, which since
ancient times have been Chinese territory. Japan
had no right to press charges against the Chinese
fishermen according to its domestic laws," said Jin.

"To strengthen its presence around the Diaoyu
Islands, the Japanese Coast Guard has been
sending patrol ships for some time now and has
repeatedly chased Chinese fishing and survey
vessels. But such action cannot alter the fact
that Diaoyu Islands belong to China. And history vouches for that."

Jin then demanded that Japan should apologize and
offer the fishermen adequate compensation. [5]

Han Dongping, a professor of history and
political science at Warren Wilson College in
North Carolina went one step further.

Han blamed former Taiwan strongman Chiang
Kai-shek's generosity and "Chiang's decision to
return Japanese atrocities in China with
kindness", as creating the foundation for this
ongoing dispute. While this may be true, Han
credited Chinese premier Zhou Enlai for actually
sealing the deal in terms of terminating China's
legitimate claim to the Diaoyu Islands.

Han then urged Japan to reverse course and do the
right thing because, "the disputes over Diaoyu
Islands can easily escalate into something that
China may use to resettle its accumulated
grievances it suffered at the hands of Japanese
imperialists in the long distant past".

"Arousing Chinese people's nationalism will do
Japan no good in the long run. As China acquires
more military capabilities, and as the Chinese
people clamor for the government to take a harder
stand against Japan's aggression, the Chinese
government is no longer in a position to ignore
the popular demand in China," said Han. "Japan
needs to be careful when it takes steps to
escalate the dispute. What will Japan do if
several hundred Chinese fishing boats show up in
the disputed areas? Will it be able to detain
them all and arrest them all?" [6]

What cannot go unmentioned at the same time,
however, is the strange disconnect in United
States statements and actions as this incident was unfolding.

On the one hand, the US had dispatched teams of
officials to China, South Korea and Japan to
ensure that not only would all three nations
remain firmly united and fully in support of
US-backed sanctions against Iran, but that China
would not attempt to take advantage of - or
otherwise exploit - the commercial opportunities
created when the withdrawal of Japanese and South
Korean companies from Iran was completed.

And as the Chinese and Japanese vessels were
slamming into each other, the US submarine USS
Hawaii quietly made its way to its berth at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.

The fact that the USS Hawaii, a so-called
"Virginia class" submarine which is the US Navy's
most sophisticated fast attack sub that is
designed to perform in shallow seas in
particular, has now joined the US Navy's 7th
Fleet off China for the first time is not welcome
news for anyone who might infer that Japan is an adversary.

"We are the first, but there are more to follow,"
said the submarine's commanding officer, Commander Stephen Mack. [7]

This summer, it is not just the movement of US
aircraft carriers, but the growing number of US
submarines operating in the western Pacific in
particular which is sending a message about US resolve.

It all started with the US display of a few of
its submarines several weeks earlier. There was a
simultaneous sighting of three US guided missile
submarines in Asian waters, and this was highly
unusual, too. These three so-called SSGNs, which
have shed their Trident nuclear-tipped missiles
and are now equipped with several dozen Tomahawk
cruise missiles, suddenly surfaced in full view
in three harbors within hours of each other in
late June - in Subic Bay in the Philippines, in
Pusan, South Korea, and in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

This kind of activity involving US submarines can
attract lots of attention and is rare indeed. It
might be described as merely a coincidence, but not here.

A few hours after the USS Hawaii tied up to the
dock at Yokosuka, US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, in remarks to the Council on Foreign
Relations in Washington, DC, recalled the US
stance of the 1950s as she reminded China how the
US was quickly regaining any lost ground in Asia.

     As Dean Acheson put it in 1951, "The ability
to evoke support from others is quite as
important as the capacity to compel." To this end
we have repaired old alliances and forged new
partnerships. We have strengthened institutions
that provide incentives for cooperation,
disincentives for sitting on the sidelines, and
defenses against those who would undermine global
progress. And we have championed the values that
are at the core of the American character.

One can only wonder if the well-placed mention by
Clinton of the term "core" here was meant to
offset China's recent emphasis on US threats to its "core interests".

"Now there should be no mistake: This
administration is also committed to maintaining
the greatest military in the history of the world
and, if needed, to vigorously defending our
friends and ourselves," said Clinton. "After more
than a year-and-a-half, we have begun to see the
dividends of our strategy. We are advancing
America's interests and making progress on some
of our most pressing challenges. Today we can say
with confidence that this model of American
leadership works, and that it offers our best hope in a dangerous world." [8]

An increasingly dangerous world afloat, one might add.

1. More countermeasures against Japan, Global Times, Sep. 14, 2010.
2. US and China can't calm South China Sea, Asia Times, June 4, 2010.
3. Activists from HK and Taiwan sail towards
Diaoyu Islands, Global Times, Sep 13, 2010.
4. Japan attempts dangerous precedent, Global Times, Sep 13, 2010.
5. Japan must honor law of sea, China Daily, Sep .14, 2010.
6. Disputes over Diaoyu Islands do Japan no good, China Daily, Sep 14, 2010.
7. Submarine USS Hawaii first of its class to
enter Western Pacific, Stars and Stripes, Sep 7, 2010.
8. Remarks on United States Foreign Policy, US
Department of State, Sep 8, 2010.

* Peter J. Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.
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