09/28/2010, 00.00
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Political typhoon in the Pacific: the tension between Beijing and Tokyo

by Pino Cazzaniga
Despite the release of the Chinese ship’s captain, the dispute between the two countries seems to be unending. According to a Japanese scholar the solution lies in overcoming the concept of national sovereignty, which must instead be seen in transnational dimensions.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Tension remains high between China and Japan in the wake of the Sept. 7  episode of the arrest of a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew by the Japanese coast guard near a group of small islands, the sovereignty of which is claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. This despite the release of the sailors and later of the captain of the boat, Zhan Qixiong.  The captain on arriving in Fushou in Fujian province (southern China) aboard a government chartered jet Saturday 25, after being detained for over two weeks in the city of Naha (Okinawa, Japan), immediately declared : "I firmly support the position of the Chinese government. The Diaoyu Islands belong to China. The fact that we went fishing there is entirely legal but it was illegal for me to have been detained”.

The most serious crisis in relations between Tokyo and Beijing

The day before, September 24 Toru Suzuki, deputy director of the office of the public prosecutor in the district of Naha (Okinawa, Japan), communicating the decision to release the Chinese captain had made an explicit reference to "the future of relations between China and Japan ".

Instead, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded: "The arrest, investigation and any measure of judicial procedure against the captain and crew of the vessel by Japan is illegal and invalid, having violated the territorial sovereignty of China and the human rights of the Chinese people". But at the same time the authorities in Beijing called for a solution to the issue "through dialogue". It was the first time since the beginning of the entire story, that the Chinese authorities had called for dialogue, which instead had been the constant line of the Japanese government. Analysts hold that this episode has plunged relations between the two nations to its lowest level in recent decades. One wonders why, all things considered, an such a minor incident could have such disastrous effects at a diplomatic level. The term "territorial sovereignty" is key to the answer.

Chinese pressure

Despite the release, relations between Beijing and Tokyo remain strained. Immediately after the release of the captain of the vessel, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for an apology and compensation from Japan. The Japanese Foreign Ministry, with the same official procedure, said that the request is unacceptable and Prime Minister Kan, returning from New York, reiterated: "We have absolutely no intention of responding" and added " Because the Seentaku islands are Japanese territory, it is inconceivable that there is talk of an apology or compensation”.

The Chinese pressures are not only verbal and have already been implemented. On September 22, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in New York used a meeting with Chinese expatriates to demand from Japan the immediate and unconditional release of the Captain, threatening punitive measures. In the same city, the Japanese officials vainly pursued a meeting between Khan and the Chinese prime minister Wen.

Stronger punitive measures were put in place at an economic level. A halt to exports to Japan of “raw minerals” : that is, rare materials essential for the specialized Japanese industry: electronics, car industry, computers and, in general, the technology industry. The ban was announced on September 20, the day after the Japanese judicial authorities had extended the detention of Zhang's for another ten days.

Municipal authorities in Beijing called dozens of agencies to stem the flow of Chinese tourists from China to Japan, which has soared in recent years, surpassing one million in 2008. According to the JTA (Japan Tourism Agency) between April and June this year, Chinese visitors to Japan spent 50.3 billion yen (594 million dollars), or 22% of the total money paid by foreign tourists. One Chinese company cancelled the trip to Japan for a group of 10 thousand tourists.

The search for a solution

"We will not give up, we will not compromise," said Wen Sept. 24 in his speech to the UN, referring to the issue of the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu). Neither is Japan. The object of the compromise is the right to territorial sovereignty that both sides believe they have.

The path to finding a solution is dialogue. But what about dialogue? At this point, the Asahi newspaper consulted sinologist Satoshi Amaka, professor at Waseda University (Tokyo). The professor claims the debate should not focus on specific cases, but on the very concept of national sovereignty. "It is time that political and opinion leaders in Japan and China work together and put their ingenuity to good use." He immediately offers his assistance. He believes that "the concept of national sovereignty is not an inviolable and immutable concept”, but a" historical concept "and therefore variable. It was created in Europe in 1648 with the Treaty of Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War. It is a system in which a state is considered sovereign within its borders. international order is maintained through agreements between states.

The system has worked well for over three centuries, but in Europe. Today's China vehemently adhering to the concept of inviolable state sovereignty lacks historical perspective for two reasons. First, because until the last years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) the world view of China was based on sino-centrism, not the nation-state system. Also with the birth of the 'European Union it is clear that this notion is not invariable.

"In the global community of the 21st century, notes Amaka, the values, roles, and functions of nation-states will coexist with their transnational counterparts in completing and influencing one another. If the contrast on the Sentaku islands is fought in terms of state against state, the dispute can be resolved only by force that will leave large wounds on both sides. The solution requires completely new ideas in the nation-state context and in the context of a transnational system. " This, it appears, is a useful contribution to the formation of a new international legal system open to the future.  

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