`China overreacted to boat row with Japan`

Updated: Sep 27, 2010, 09:13 AM IST

"Down with Japan", "Wipe out the Japanese devils!"

Chanting such anti-Japan slogans, Chinese were seen stamping on Japanese flags in the last few days. In a bid to avert a major diplomatic stand-off, Japan has freed the captain of a Chinese fishing boat whose detention in disputed waters on September 07 triggered the worst spat between the Asian neighbours in years.

The latest row was sparked by Japan`s seizure of a Chinese trawler that collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels off a series of disputed islands in the East China Sea. These uninhabited isles are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China as well as Taiwan.

Assertive China is now demanding an apology and compensation from Japan, indicating that the diplomatic fallout from the row is likely to haunt Tokyo.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Dr Shamshad Ahmad Khan, an expert on Japan, discusses the worst rift between Asia`s two biggest economies in years.

Dr Shamshad Ahmad Khan is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Kamna: China had suspended top-level exchanges with Japan in the wake of the captain’s arrest. Do you think it was an over-reaction? How do you measure China’s response to this incident?

Dr Khan: Suspension of top-level talks was certainly an overreaction as Chinese ships’ intrusions into Japanese water has been a regular phenomenon. Japan has lodged complaints of it with China. Japanese Coast Guards have used water cannon to repel them back many times in the past. But this was the first time they seized a Chinese boat and detained the captain. Since the issue was sub judice in a Japanese court, China should have waited for some more time and should not have cancelled high-level interaction. If one sees the whole issue in this context, it seems China did overreact.

Kamna: The incident led to anti-Japan protests in China. Do you agree with the view that Beijing’s ties with Tokyo have long been exposed to pressure from domestic public opinion?

Dr Khan: There are strong anti-Japanese sentiments in China and the recent incident has just added fuel to the fire, as we could see widespread protests in different parts of China. In the past, China was able to withstand sustained public pressure and opinion while dealing with Japan. But this time, since the issue coincided with 50th anniversary of Japanese invasion of China, it went out of the hands of Chinese authorities. Or China may be manoeuvring the nationalist sentiments to pressurise Japanese to win the detained captain’s release.

Kamna: Can this contention over disputed seas hamper ties between the two big economies?

Dr Khan: Certainly the issue will hamper the diplomatic relations between the two countries for the time being. But since Sino-Japanese relations are driven by business interests between the two countries, business lobbies will push the governments to mend their differences. In 2006, when Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations witnessed a chill following the then prime minister (Junichiro) Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni war shrine, it was Japanese Business Federations chief who covertly visited China and met Hu Jintao and urged him to restrain anti-Japanese protests in China. Similar efforts are expected this time also. Also, China cannot ignore Japan for a longer period and will restore relations.

Kamna: Have the ties between China and Japan moved beyond the WWII hostilities?

Dr Khan: Of course, ties have moved beyond WWII hostilities. Japan and China are biggest trading partners for each other. Though there are hostilities between the two on the issue of history, yet the two share strong cultural ties and have economic interdependence. The historical disputes and hostilities will be there, but it is economics that drives the present Sino-Japanese relations, not history. You can say there is a kind of pragmatism among the leadership of the two countries. That is why they had agreed to jointly explore the resources near the disputed island. Though it is not materialising for the time being, the project will likely take off again as both the countries know the importance of energy for the growth of their economy.

Kamna: How does the dispute between China and Japan affect US’ foreign policy in the region?

Dr Khan: As far as the US’ foreign policy in the region is concerned, the Obama administration has expressed concern over Chinese activities in the South China Sea, but not in the East China Sea in such explicit terms.

Japanese are surprised over a change in the Obama administration’s policy over the Senkaku Islands. They say that the US does not take a position on the ultimate ownership of the Senkaku Islands. So it becomes very complex to predict what position will the US take in case China and Japan reach a level of military showdown over the disputed territory. Chinese are trying to capitalise on the US’ ambiguity over the issue and are testing the alliance as well. Beijing is also trying to asses what position the US will take in case it confronts Tokyo.