“China over-reached” is the conclusion of APP Board member Mike Mochizuki who is Associate Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and holds the Japan-US Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur. In October 2010, he gave an interview to APP member Richard Katz who is editor of The Oriental Economist (TOE). TOE's monthly and daily reports are must-reads by those interested and involved in US-Japan relations.
We have reprinted with permission the interview here:
TOE: I want to ask you about the broader implications of the Senkakus incident for Japan-China relations, threat perceptions of China and so forth. But let’s begin with incident itself, in which, according to Tokyo, a Chinese fishing boat deliberately collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. Do you think the collision was a premeditated testing of Japan by Beijing, or was it something that just happened and Beijing in the aftermath decided to take a tough line?
Mochizuki: I just don’t know. There’s a lot of speculation about that. I don’t know how Tokyo views it, but I’m going to try and find out when I visit in a couple weeks.
TOE: Why did Beijing take such a tough stance afterwards?
Mochizuki: One way to understand is to compare this incident to past intrusions by foreign fishing boats and such into Japan’s territorial waters or even onto the Senkakus islands themselves. There was an incident back in 2004 when seven Chinese landed on the Senkakus. This was during the Koizumi administration when Sino-Japanese relations were not good. The Japanese took them into custody, but then deported them shortly thereafter, and Koizumi made a statement about how this incident should not damage the bilateral relationship.
There was another incident in 2008 that involved a collision between a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard frigate. In that incident, Japan’s chief representative in Taiwan ended up apologizing to the captain of the Taiwanese boat.
TOE: But in the latter case, the Taiwanese released a video showing that the Japanese vessel collided with them, not vice versa. In the latest incident, Tokyo charges that the Chinese fishing boat initiated the collision, but Tokyo has not yet released the video.
Mochizuki: That’s right. What I’m trying to get at is why the Chinese protested so strongly in this case. One possibility is that, in the past, even though there was a detention of the violator, there was a relatively quick move towards release. In this case, by contrast, the Japanese decided to hang on to the captain—while releasing the other crew members—and stipulating that they were going to go through this legal procedure implying that the captain could even be indicted and put on trial.
So from the Chinese point of view, this was going against past precedent. The Chinese protest, which was relatively ritualized at the beginning, then became increasingly intense. From Beijing’s perspective, to have a Taiwanese government stand up to Tokyo and get an apology, and for Beijing not to do the same would lead to criticisms among nationalists in China. That could be voiced on the internet or by those in government circles who might want to criticize the current leadership for not being tough enough with the Japanese.
I’m not justifying the Chinese reaction. I’m only trying to explain and understand it.
TOE: You’re hypothesizing Beijing’s move as a reaction to certain pressures, nationalistic emotions, and political infighting. But could it have been deliberate testing: let’s see what we can get away with, let’s see if we can intimidate the Japanese?
Mochizuki: That’s definitely a plausible hypothesis. And none of the facts that we know so far can falsify that hypothesis. But it’s one thing to speculate and another to claim that this is, in fact, what Beijing was doing. I think it’s irresponsible for some commentators to make that claim without any clear evidence. The Chinese decision-making process is not very transparent. So we may never know.
TOE: Do you think that, in the end, the Chinese overreached, and did themselves some harm in the eyes of other Asian neighbors? Or, do you think they actually came off looking tough and now countries throughout Asia will be afraid to mess with them?
Mochizuki: I think this was a diplomatic setback for China. They overplayed their hand. One example is the demand for apology and compensation after the Japanese released the captain. They could have acted immediately to defuse tensions, but they did not do that. I think that damaged China’s reputation among Asian countries, not just Japan. In recent months, countries in the region have become increasingly wary of China because of its assertive behavior. For example, Chinese patrol boats have pursued and even shooting at Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea. This behavior has provoked ASEAN states to cooperate diplomatically to counter China. Among other things, it led them to work with the US government and to get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to talk publicly about the importance of peaceful management and resolution of the territorial issues in the South China Sea and the importance of navigational freedom. Clinton’s comments led to a very strong and emotional, but ineffective, response by the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi.
Another example was the Chinese uproar about the announcement of US and Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea.
Two years ago people were talking about how China’s diplomacy was so adroit, how effective it had been in reassuring the region and getting the region to cooperate with China. People were saying China was really effective in using its “soft power.” Now, the question is: what’s happened to all that, and why is China overplaying its hand? Among expert Sinologists, people have very different answers to that question.
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