Detention of a Fisherman a Major Obstacle to Sino-Japanese Relations

Comment on the article: "Japan extends detention of Chinese skipper to Sept. 29"

China and Japan have close economic ties, the extent to which Japan currently counts China as its biggest trading partner. But when political and territorial disagreements arise, such as this one over islands in the East China Sea (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese), old feelings of anger over the Japanese occupation of large parts of China before and during World War II, in which millions of Chinese died, often become manifest. For example, the bilateral relationship was severely strained by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine during his time in power. There was strong anti-Japan sentiment in China and bilateral ties were seriously damaged. Koizumi did not visit China for five years, and summits weren't held for a year and a half. In April 2005, thousands of protesters in Chinese cities came onto the streets to show their opposition to the Japanese government’s approval of school textbooks that were said to glorify the country’s wartime atrocities. Crowds also damaged Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses and demanded the rejection of Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Although the capture and detention of a single fishing boat may not seem like much, it serves as evidence to how such territorial disputes between countries in East Asia can become a reason to vent emotions that are deeply rooted in history. For example, the territorial dispute between Korea and Japan over the Liancourt Rocks (called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese) has been both an emotional battle for national pride and a diplomatic stumbling block between both countries. Likewise, the unyielding Japanese and Chinese responses to this incident may be reflecting the countries' respective sentiments toward each other that date back as far as the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in China (Toby 172). In that period, Japan had attempted to establish its own world order, while China, upset at the fact that Japan refused to opt into the tributary system, severed all relations with Japan. Although it is a stretch, the behavior that we can see from both countries from the dispute over the islands in the East China Sea is not totally unrelated to historical happenings.

However, unlike the dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, the impact of this incident may extend far beyond past feelings and the diplomatic sphere; it may significantly affect the economic relations between China and Japan as well. Recently, Pro-Health, a Beijing-based health product manufacturing and sales company, canceled a trip to Japan involving about 10,000 employees, according to an article in the Daily Yomiuri ( Observers assert that the trip, which would have been a significant source of revenue for the Japanese tourism industry, was canceled in protest of the boat captain’s arrest. Similarly, other Chinese businesses may sever ties with Japan, leading to greater economic harms for Japan. Although pre-modern Japan may have been willing to forgo "the benefits of accepting tributary status" (Cohen 152) in exchange for withdrawing from the sphere of the Chinese World Order, the disadvantages of insisting ! on keeping the same policy direction as the past for a prolonged period of time in today's world may be too great to ignore.

- Jeeyoon Yu C'11

Warren I. Cohen, East Asia at the Center (2000)
Ronald Toby, “Through the Looking-Glass of Protocol,” pp. 168-197