It is interesting to look at how relations between these two countries are changing in light of recent events. Not only has China just overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy, but Japan is also becoming more vocal over business conditions in China. The high politics of security are inextricably intertwined with the low politics of economic concerns:
China calls them the Diaoyutai, Japan the Senkaku. In both languages, the name means "fishing islands," but these days the rocky, uninhabited islands are better known for discord. Over the past week, the pattern has repeated itself as ties between Japan and China have grown strained over a Sept. 8 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Pacific islands.Taiwan also says these islands are theirs, and protesters were out in force over alleged Japanese expansion of their claims.
Japan's coast guard released the 14-member crew on Monday, China's state-run Xinhua news service reported, but captain Zhan Qixiong and the boat remain in Japanese custody. While Japan maintains that it is handling the situation according to its laws, China has denounced Japanese plans to investigate the collision. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Sept. 9 that "Japan's so-called evidence-taking is illegal, invalid and in vain.
The Chinese government summoned the Japanese ambassador, Uichiro Niwa, on Sept. 12 for the fourth time since the collision. The ambassador met with state councilor Dai Bingguo, the highest-ranking Chinese official so far to protest the handling of the incident with the Japanese government. Dai told the ambassador that Japan should find a "wise political resolution," according to Chinese state press.
Japan took control of the islands, which are northeast of Taiwan, after the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 and has administered them since the 1970s, when the U.S. ended its post–World War II control. But China has reiterated claims going back several centuries to when the location of the islands was first recorded. Taiwan also lays claim to the islands.
Since the latest dispute, China has postponed a meeting with Japan aimed at resolving overlapping claims to natural-gas deposits in the area. The potential for vast oil and gas reserves near the uninhabited islands is a key source of the conflict over them. The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea offers conflicting instructions as to who is entitled to energy rights in the region, giving both sides a claim based on how they define their exclusive economic zones. China argues that its zone extends to the edge of the continental shelf, while Japan says that it should stop at the midpoint between the two nations.
So far the Chinese government has played up its response to the incident, and state-run media outlets have provided detailed coverage. Chinese protesters held a brief demonstration outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Wednesday. Their event was small and subdued, nothing like in 2005, when anger over Japanese textbook revisions led to huge demonstrations across China and attempts by protesters to storm the Japanese embassy in Beijing. The authorities are clearly wary of a repeat of that unrest, and a large police presence remains outside the embassy.
While China (like much of Southeast Asia) has legitimate historical grievances to pick with Japan, what's interesting is how much manoeuvring room the Communist leadership gives its citizens venting anger against Japan. In Asia, folks have very long memories. All the same, while Japan sometimes serves as a convenient scapegoat or safety valve, intense pressure may result in anger being directed at the burghers of Beijing themselves. It's always a balancing act, and certainly Japan provokes China every once in a while to, ah, test the waters.