Why China is also a loser in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute

Japanese prosecutors have vowed to free the Chinese captain they arrested two weeks ago after a collision near a set of uninhabited islands disputed between both Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Zhan Qixiong’s ship collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels on 8th September near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which both East Asian nations claim as their own. Zhan was subsequently handed over to prosecutors on the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, where he was detained and questioned over “intentionally hitting at least one patrol ship and obstructing officers.” If found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison.

Today, however, Japan conceded that no damage was intended, but blamed Zhan for ignoring repeated requests to leave the hotly-disputed area.

The row between Japan and China following Zhan’s detention was a key factor in today’s decision making, Japanese prosecutors said. Premier Wen demanded Zhan’s release, claiming Zhan’s detention was illegal, while Tokyo called for high-level bilateral talks between the two nations. However, once Japan extended Zhan’s period of detention, China retaliated by cutting diplomatic communication.

It did not stop there: a selection of Chinese travel agencies cancelled package tours to Japan, while a Chinese ticket agency suspended ticket sales of a Japanese band’s gigs in mainland China, a Japanese tabloid reported. The situation became even stickier yesterday, as The Economist reports:

China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports.

The row undoubtedly opened a lot of old wounds for China in terms of its national pride, which Tokyo had feared. Since such a substantial part of Chinese nationalism rests on how China battled against foreign humiliation, in particular Japanese oppression, to form a nation, it is unsurprising that this month’s events have garnered such sensitive responses from citizens. Ever more the vehicle for discussion and protest, the Chinese Internet was awash with nationalist sentiment. In the words of one netizen, reposted on ChinaSMACK:

Our national humiliation can never be forgotten. As an ordinary common person, all I can do is be angry and boycott Japanese goods; if there is a war, as a reserve officer, I will not hesitate!

In conceding to China’s heated demands, Japan has, much to China’s relish, perhaps come off from this scenario looking weak and unable to avoid diplomatic pressure from its looming neighbour. That China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy is an attest to the Middle Kingdom’s growing prowess.

However, none of this is to say China is the ‘winner’ in this battle for Zhan’s release. As The Economist wrote today, China’s actions have “called into question its maturity as a responsible international actor and undermined its pretensions to a ‘peaceful rise’.” That China should respond so dramatically to such a dispute does its diplomatic image as a global player no favours. Similarly melodramatic responses have plagued the nation throughout the past year, from its stubbornness to agree to legally-binding cuts at Copenhagen to a slew of disputes with the US ranging from Google’s exit to the revaluation of the Renminbi.

However, given China’s knack for holding on to its history tight, in particular the pain inflicted on the nation by Japan, its reaction to this month’s events is perhaps understandable. But understandable only to an extent: China’s obstinacy may well prove to be unsustainable as more and more global players become, simply, fed up of having to deal with a nation that won’t compromise.

For the past year, China has been Japan’s number one trading partner, and so it is in both countries’ interests to maintain diplomatic ties. The nasty effect of this month’s episode on those relations remains to be seen: perhaps the two countries, with a lot of face having been lost, will proceed with business as usual. Perhaps the event may harbour deeper resentment for an inability to progress past historical wounds. In any case, the post-decision “chill” will certainly be felt.

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