Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto and Wen Jiabao, his Chinese counterpart, have met briefly in Brussels on the sideline of the ASEM summit, marking an end to the bilateral standoff following the collision between a Chinese trawler and Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the vicinity of the disputed Senkakus.
As expected, Japan and China reiterated the importance of the strategic, reciprocal partnership initiative. High-level talks and cultural exchanges will resume. All in all, it is difficult to say what has changed strategically as a result of the dispute. That China will fiercely resist any perceived change to the status quo in its maritime disputes? That China has greater leverage at its disposal? That countries — not just China — don’t like having their nationals held by other countries, particularly when, Sourabh Gupta argues, there may have been little basis for Japan’s holding the Chinese fishermen in the first place?
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom that the US is the biggest winner from the dispute is probably overstated. The allies will not find it any easier to resolve the Okinawa dispute, which continues to loom over the alliance. More importantly, however, the dispute appears to have merely reinforced the DPJ government’s basic approach to China: having little choice but to forge a working political relationship with its neighbor, Japan will redouble its commitment to building constructive relations with China. In short, the dispute, rather than signaling that Japan must change course entirely, may simply lead the Kan government to try harder.
The basic idea that has animated foreign policy under the DPJ from the day it took office — that Japan, living in a region dominated by a rising China and a declining but still powerful US, needs to find a way to navigate between and live with both power — remains intact.
That being said, the dispute with China has obviously had consequences within Japan, not least for the Kan government’s public approval ratings. Despite having received a remarkable bump in his support after defeating Ozawa — nearly twenty percent in some polls — Kan’s numbers are back to around fifty percent thanks to his government’s perceived mishandling of the dispute. Peter Ennis makes a strong case that the Kan government actually handled the issue well, getting the assurances it needed out of the US while resisting Chinese pressure long enough for the government to claim that the captain’s release was the result of a decision by the prosecutor’s office in Naha and not the central government. But the Japanese people apparently do not see it the same way. In Yomiuri’s poll, for example, eighty-three percent of respondents were not convinced by the prime minister’s claim that there was not political intervention. The same poll found a ten-percent increase in the number of respondents who said foreign and security policy should be a top priority for the Kan government; in early August only four percent said it should be a top priority. Whether this change in the public mood is more than temporary remains to be seen, but the drop in the government’s approval ratings give Kan that much less room to maneuver as the prime minister tries to coax the opposition parties to cooperate with the government.
Indeed, the LDP has rushed this issue to the top of the agenda as the autumn extraordinary session of the Diet begins. The party has declared that the “abrupt” release of the captain was the worst foreign policy failure in postwar history. The LDP is sure to build its response to the Kan government around this issue, together with the latest Ozawa indictment, meaning that the largest opposition party has two tangential issues with which to attack the government — with the sanction of the public, thanks to the public opinion polls showing that these issues matter — and put off talk of cooperation on an economic agenda. The LDP will of course get an assist from the Japanese media, particularly its more conservative precincts, which appear to have found their voice again after a dismal couple of years during which their issues vanished from the agenda as the global financial crisis unfolded and then the LDP was unseated by the DPJ.
The dispute with China not only has given ammunition to an LDP desperate to obstruct the Kan government and force an early election — it has also provided an opening for dissent within the DPJ, stirrings of which could be found in the petition signed by forty-three DPJ members, including Nagashima Akihisa, and submitted to Sengoku. The petition goes out of its way to soften its criticism of the government, but it does suggest that China policy could create some space between the government and the ruling party. However, since Kan’s cabinet has been united on the issue, grumbling within the DPJ can be safely ignored for now.
So did Kan lose? I cannot agree with Ennis entirely that the government handled the dispute well. The government’s biggest mistake was stressing that it was a matter for the Japanese legal system to handle. This stance may well have contributed to China’s raising the stakes on the issue (because it could not accept this stance without tacitly acknowledging Japanese sovereignty) but it also ensured that the rule of law would be tarnished in the event of a Japanese climb down. If the Japanese government was indeed prepared to allow the legal process to run its course I suppose this position would have been acceptable, but I doubt that Tokyo really was prepared to wait that long (unless the Kan government was actually caught off guard by Beijing’s response). The Kan government should have treated the issue like the diplomatic dispute it was from the very beginning instead of staking the credibility of Japanese institutions on the outcome. That it did so at least partially explains the public’s opposition to the government’s handling of the issue.
By holding out for as long as it did Japan may well have forced China to think twice about how hard it will push Japan in the future, perhaps won Japan more support from other countries locked in disputes with China, and provided an opportunity for Japan and other countries to take steps to mitigate China’s economic leverage (as in the case of rare earth elements), but these gains may have come at the expense of Kan’s credibility at home. Without public support, the prime minister, already the head of a de facto minority government, will find it that much more difficult to move an agenda centered on fixing Japan’s economy, which in turn is critical to maintaining Japan’s influence in the region (as argued by Maehara Seiji, Kan’s foreign minister, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Tuesday). Whatever the medium-term benefits to Japan from the dispute, it may not have been worth the short-term costs for Kan.