Tokyo Drops The N-Word In Dispute With Beijing

Japan has dropped the N-word in the increasingly intractable fishing trawler dispute with China. Japan’s chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, said officials “should be careful not to arouse narrow-minded extreme nationalism.” Though he stressed that was applicable not just to officials in China, it was clearly a barb at Beijing’s hard line in the dispute.

Within hours, the Chinese foreign ministry said a meeting between Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in New York this week would be “inappropriate”. (Update: Wen has subsequently reinforced China’s hard line: “If Japan clings to its mistake, China will take further actions and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences that arise,” he said in New York ahead of the U.N. meetings.)

Beijing has already suspended high-level exchanges with Japan and taken a range of other retaliatory moves following a Japanese court ruling over the weekend that the captain of the Chinese fishing vessel, Minjinyu 5179, alleged to have collided with Japanese coast guard ships on September 7 could be detained for an extra ten days while Japanese prosecutors decide whether to bring charges.

As we have noted before, Beijing has acted aggressively to avow its territorial claim to the disputed waters of the East China Sea around what Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China the Diaoyu islands, ratcheting up the pressure on Tokyo to back off bringing charges against the trawler’s captain under Japanese law. While Tokyo has sought to defuse the incident, it has shown no sign of backing down in the face of Beijing’s browbeating; if anything the Japanese Cabinet Secretary’s comments suggest Tokyo’s resolve is firming. This is becoming an increasingly high-stakes game of diplomatic chicken.

There would a high political cost for Japan’s still relatively new prime minister were he to buckle under pressure from Beijing the first time he was tested. There is some irony in the fact that Prime Minister Kan’s governing DPJ supports a foreign policy that is more Asia focused and more independent of the U.S. Relations with China have been improving since 2006, but as this latest incident shows, it doesn’t take much to scratch open the underlying nerves of distrust.  Other countries in the region who have disputed maritime borders with China will be looking on with some concern, and considering if tighter security relations with the U.S. might not offer them some insurance against similar treatment.

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