Recherche FFJ Research Statement Yves TIBERGHIEN


The Senkaku/Diaoyutai Crisis of September 2010:
How could a fishing incident escalate to a full-blown frontal shock between great powers?

Yves Tiberghien
Associate Professor, University of British Columbia, Dept of Political Science
Visiting Associate Professor, National Chengchi University, Taiwan
Harvard Academy Scholar



A little over a year ago, the coming to power of the Democratic Power of Japan (DPJ) signaled a big shift in Japan’s foreign policy and in East Asian relations. The DPJ announced its intention to rebalance its relations away from a sole reliance on the US and toward more integration with China and Korea. Between October 2009 and May 2010, Japan, China, and often Korea held a series of encounters and summits; a new period in East Asian integration seemed at hand. And Prime Minister Hatoyama even took the example of the European Union and the common currency as potential models for East Asia.

With this context in mind, how could this major moment in Japan-China relations and East Asian integration come to crash in September 2010 around a single fishing incident in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai area? At a time of major global negotiations around the future of the global economy in the wake of the global financial crisis, global governance and the G20, or climate change, how could two of the key powers in the world, China and Japan expand so much energy and political capital for tiny uninhabited rocks and one single fishing captain? How could such an issue come to dominate all other matters and attract in its gravitational pulls other key countries, such as the United States, and even Russia?

By December 2010, the crisis seems to have ended, but it is important to realize the large implications and damages from this crisis. For starters, the DPJ government of Kan Naoto suffered a deadly collapse in its support rate from around 71% in September to around 21-25% in December. Opinion polls indicate that public feelings about the weakness of the Kan diplomacy in dealing with China (and Russia) are the primary factor behind that drop, even though the Ozawa political scandal continues to play a negative role as well. The government may never recover. Second, opinion toward China in Japan has dramatically soured as a result of the crisis, while Chinese opinion toward Japan has also taken a turn for the worse. Third, the process of northeast Asian integration and strategic engagement between Japan and China has stopped dead in its track, after years of efforts that go back to the Fukuda government of 2006. Fourth, China has demonstrated its new power and the great underlying power shift that has taken place in East Asia; yet China has also shown a more “scary” face to the larger audience around Japan, including a willingness to use every tool including rare earth embargoes or arrest of Japanese citizens to redress what it considered a major wrong with the arrest of Captain Zhang Qixiong. Thus, China has indirectly played a role in pushing Japan back toward a strengthening of its alliance with the US. Fifth, the crisis is leaving more military tension in its wake with the quasi permanent deployment of Chinese armed fishery administration ships near the Senkaku/Diaoyutai and a Japanese decision to shift its defense focus from Hokkaido and the Russian front to the Ryukyu islands and China.

What happened? It is easy to draw rapid conclusions on rising China willing to test Japan’s defense and expand its might, but this is wrong. Nothing was planned in the fishing clash of September 7 and both Chinese and Japanese governments were caught off guard. What triggered the crisis was a decision by fish to congregate in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai waters in larger concentration that in recent years and to attract dozens of Chinese fishing boats from Fujian. Up to 80 Fujian boats came to the area between August and early September. On September 7, what happened was a unintended clash between a Chinese fishing captain in search of fish and zealous Japanese coast guards that may have changed their procedures to try and encircle ships infringing the area controlled by Japan (but disputed by China). The captain, probably drunk and known in Fujian as one of their best and most ambitious, apparently decided to force the trap and ram the much bigger coast guard ships twice. He was later caught and arrested. What was new, however, was the decision by Japan not just to punish and release him, but to bring him into a domestic prosecution process. This step was a novel one and one that was supposed to be avoided according to past (mostly secret) agreements between Japan and China.

The rest of the crisis is well-known. Based on an unprecedented political decision by Coast Guard Minister Seiji Maehara (later promoted to Foreign Minister), Japan kept the captain under pre-prosecution detention for ten days and extended that period to another ten days. China initially protested through diplomatic channels and escalated its response to full-blown boycotts of rare earths, cancellation of events, major threats, and arrest of four Japanese citizens inside China. Relations between China and Japan broke down, East Asian summits became side-tracked, and China seems to have even managed to cooperate with Russia and to have played a role in Russian president Medvedev’s decision to visit the disputed Kurile islands in October. Japan buckled and released the captain on September 24, but the Kan government suffered greatly in the process.

What lessons can we draw from the incident?

First, the crisis resulted from the unintended consequences of an unexpected clash between grassroots actors. It was not planned.
Second, the crisis only escalated to the level it did because the initial clash got caught in the negative interactions between two independent domestic political cycles. On the Japanese side, Minister Maehara was both ignorant about China and willing to use the crisis in an entrepreneurial way to build up his political image, albeit with disastrous consequences. On the Chinese side, bottom up pressures from public opinion at a time of greater participation by the public in governance on a number of issues made it impossible for the Chinese leadership not to take drastic counter-measures, given the historical importance of the Diaoyutai as one of the lost territories in the 1895 war with Japan.
Third, a necessary condition for the crisis to take the turn it did was the weak institutionalization of relations between great powers in North East Asia. The avoidance of such unstoppable crises around sovereignty issues was one motivation behind the European integration process when it started in 1950. The lack of such cushioning institutions or deep human elite networks between Japan and China suddenly appeared to the open. Probably, the cost of the Koizumi years of non engagement with China at a time when Japan still had a larger economic size relative to China’s is also apparent. Getting into such zero-sum game clashes over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai (or the Takeshima/Tokdo islet with Korea) is utterly counter-productive for Japan, wasting immense resources and with no chance of any gain. The search for a larger grand bargain and institutional process with both China and Korea is probably in Japan’s longer-term interest. That may include sharing sovereignty or finding pragmatic ways to share resources in disputed areas.
Finally, the crisis also demonstrated the shifting balance of power between China and Japan and the increased dependence of Japan on China, particularly in the economic realm. Thus, a clash with China over such an issue is not sustainable any longer for Japan without destructive consequences. The Japanese public may, however, not yet be ready to accept such implications.
FOR MORE analysis, see article in Harvard Asia Quarterly