Japan and China: Relations Take a Dive
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
The uproar created by the intrusion of a Chinese nuclear submarine into Japanese territorial waters could not have come at a worse time, since Tokyo had hoped that the Apec forum in Chile this week would provide an opportunity for a rare meeting between leaders of the two countries.
The incident will undoubtedly strengthen the hand of politicians in Japan who warn that a rising China poses a threat to security. Already, the Japanese Defence Agency has identified three scenarios under which the nation might be subject to military action by China, and is seeking to formulate military strategies to counter such attacks.
These scenarios provide for attacks stemming from disputes over ocean resources, territorial disputes and a clash across the Taiwan Strait.
As it is, Japan is unhappy about a Chinese gas exploration project in the East China Sea, near Japan's exclusive economic zone. Tokyo is concerned that China will also extract gas from the Japanese side of the zone. The two sides held talks on this last month without reaching an accord, but they agreed to meet again.
Japanese Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa has linked the submarine incident to the Chinese gas exploration project. He said that he believed Chinese submarines had been in Japanese waters for some time. Japan says Chinese surveillance ships have been increasing their activities off Okinawa and in Japan's exclusive economic zone.
Mr Nakagawa also suggested that, because of the latest incident, Japan may well end its economic aid to China. So far, it has totalled nearly US$32 billion. It was more than US$800 million in 2002.
Japan said that a Han-class nuclear submarine had spent two hours in Japanese waters last Wednesday.
Late yesterday, Japan's top government spokesman, Hiroyuki Hosoda, said that Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei had told the Japanese ambassador to China that the sub was on routine manoeuvres, and that Beijing regretted the incident. "We consider this an apology," Mr Hosoda said.
At the weekend, the Chinese ambassador to Japan, Wang Yi , called for the two sides to remain calm. He again criticised Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals.
Because of the visits, Beijing has refrained from inviting Mr Koizumi to China and has barred top Chinese leaders from going to Tokyo. The only possibility of summit meetings, therefore, is on the margins of multilateral conferences being attended by both sides, such as the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum.
Japan has requested such a meeting between President Hu Jintao and Mr Koizumi in Chile, but the Chinese have been noncommittal. At a press conference last week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that "concerted efforts" and "favourable conditions" were required for such a meeting.
The submarine is said to have entered Japanese territorial waters about 300km southwest of Okinawa. According to Japanese officials, it did not surface and raise its national flag, as required by international law when in a foreign country's territorial waters. Two destroyers and a surveillance plane monitored the vessel, which was tracked for two days as it gradually made its way into Chinese waters.
Relations between the two countries have been beset by problems lately, as both have turned increasingly nationalistic. Aside from history, both China and Japan are confronted with the need for energy to fuel their economic engines, as evidenced by their competition for a Russian pipeline, and for oil and gas in the East China Sea.
(Originally appeared in the November 17, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)