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China-Japan row threatens to undermine vital shared interests

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2010-09-20

It boils down to a relatively minor incident – but Japan’s continued detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain highlights rumblings of discontent between the two countries that could have serious implications for future cooperation.

The diplomatic spat between Japan and China over the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain jeopardises future cooperation between the two countries on much more serious issues, according to one Asia expert.

Dr Kerry Brown, a senior fellow and Asia expert at UK think tank Chatham House, warned that the escalating animosity could damage years of work -- and years of future cooperation -- that is essential for the development and security of both countries.

“Japan has given China significant economic help in the past, and both countries have common problems such as energy, natural resources and an increasingly volatile North Korea. They need to cooperate,” he told FRANCE 24.

“It is worrying that they can fight like this over such a minor incident. We all hope their diplomats are thinking hard about how to avoid such tiresome grief in the future.”

Key disputes between China and Japan

Gas exploration rights in the East China Sea

Ownership of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands

Japan's Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the war dead, which China sees as honouring war criminals

Contacts suspended

Japan has extended the detention and questioning of the captain of a Chinese trawler accused of hitting two Japanese vessels in disputed waters.

The incident on September 7 took place near a group of islands -- known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- which is claimed by both countries as well as by Taiwan. The area has rich fishing grounds as well as possible oil and gas deposits.

Under Japanese law, the authorities have a further 10 days to either charge or release the captain, Zhan Qixiong. The boat's 14 Chinese crew members were released last week.

As the row escalated, Beijing on Sunday suspended ministerial and provincial-level contacts, putting on hold talks on aviation issues and postponing meetings on energy-related topics. On Monday, an official Chinese youth organisation cancelled a visit by 1,000 young Japanese to Shanghai.

While the two countries are competitors, their economies (which are the world's
second- and third-biggest) have become more intertwined in recent years and there have been no signs so far the dispute would hurt business relations.

‘A really dumb corner’

But for Dr Brown, the present spat, despite being trivial in terms of actual damage alleged against the Chinese fishing captain, is serious.

All the more so because, he says, delicate issues such as North Korea, as well as the need to exploit common resources and to cooperate economically, are only going to intensify in coming years.

“There have been ups and downs in the last decade, but withdrawal of high-level contacts is something that generally does not happen,” he explained.

“It is difficult to see how they are going to bury their differences. Both China and Japan have got themselves into a really dumb corner. They have got to smarten up their acts. This is the kind of thing that could easily get out of hand.”

Old war wounds

To a large degree the historic animosity between the two countries stems from Japan’s imperialist expansion into China before and during the Second World War.

During the 2001-2006 term of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, his repeated visits to a war shrine in Japan enraged China.

The war issue perpetuates the sense of bad feeling between the two countries, and Dr Brown believes a sense of grievance and victimhood in China has increased significantly in the last decade.

“Many young Chinese bloggers take any kind of possible action by Japan as a violation of national sovereignty,” he says. “There are many voices in China saying that this incident is proof that China is being bullied.”

Meanwhile, in Japan there is growing -- and dangerous, according to Dr Brown -- frustration with the political system and the heavy influence of the USA in foreign policy and security matters.

“Young people are beginning to feel that their country is suffering from ancient history,” he says. “They are questioning the country’s pacifist constitution and would prefer to go it alone without the influence of the USA.”

Date created : 2010-09-20

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