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10 years after Senkaku boat collision: What China’s refusal to resolve the issue has taught us

On Sept. 7, 2010, a Chinese fishing boat rammed into Japan Coast Guard ships off the Senkaku islands. Why did China, the instigator of the incident, take such a hardline approach that culminated in the arrest of Japanese nationals? Interviews and documents on the incident and its aftermath reveal what this means for Japan in dealing with China.


On Sept. 20, 2010, at 9 p.m., a high-ranking Japanese official confronted China’s State Councillor Dai Bingguo, China’s top diplomat, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. The Japanese official was sent to Beijing by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku to convey to the Chinese government “a strictly confidential message.”


By that time, 14 days had passed since the collision incident. The fishing boat’s captain had been arrested, and only a day earlier the detention period had been extended for 10 more days. Angry Chinese were demonstrating against Japan. Although then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan stressed that it was important to return the captain as early as possible, the proper judicial process would need to be followed. Sengoku told the Japanese official to propose “the only possible solution” to Dai.


“We can release the captain by Sept. 29 if China agrees to cooperate,” the Japanese official began to explain. Although Dai initially objected, he listened.


The plan CCS Sengoku had formulated involved an admission by the Chinese that its fishing boat had intentionally rammed into the JCG ships, which constituted obstruction of official duties. If China would admit to the charges and pay the fine, the detention would be lifted in a “summary indictment.”


This was a Japanese indictment, so it would be processed in the Japanese judicial system At the same time, it would accommodate China’s request for early release. The only problem was that the captain was refusing to sign any statement or report, meaning that the condition that the accused admit to the facts was not fulfilled.


The Japanese official tried to convince his Chinese counterpart to encourage the captain to sign the documents, saying, “If the case is put on trial, it will take months to resolve.”


The captain had his own reason for refusing to sign the documents: An official of the Chinese Embassy who had rushed to Naha on the day of the arrest had instructed the captain never to confirm the facts when Japan asked. China claims the Senkakus as its territory. Admitting that Japan had jurisdiction over the area would have undermined this position.


Dai refused to compromise on this point. He rejected the proposal, but promised to convey it to the party leadership. He even refused to watch a video recording of the collision that the Japanese had brought, saying, “I am really very disappointed by this explanation. We cannot accept any form of indictment.”


Dai insisted that the incident was caused by the JCG boat and vehemently stated that Japan’s strategy was to conspire to strengthen its effective control over the Senkakus by handling the incident through Japanese judicial proceedings. China’s state media had begun reporting that it was the Japanese ship that rammed into the Chinese boat immediately after the incident. The Chinese government couldn’t change its narrative.


When they parted, two officials shook hands. “We would like you to release the captain immediately with no conditions attached,” said the Chinese official. “We would like you to carefully consider the Japanese proposal,” replied the Japanese side. The unusual closed-door meeting ended at 11:00 p.m. without moving any closer to a resolution.


The next day, Sept. 21, then-Chinese Premier Wen Jinbao announced that it was unavoidable that China took forceful measures. On the same day, customs procedures involving the shipment of rare-earth materials to Japan started to slow down. On Sept. 23, it came to light that four Japanese nationals had been detained by China on charges of taking photos inside an area under military control. Many Japanese companies received notifications from their Chinese counterparts that their business transactions had been canceled.


The Chinese insisted these developments had nothing to do with the incident at the Senkakus, but that was hard to believe. Japan was perplexed by the various types of pressure China exerted.


Meanwhile, the public prosecutors of Naha received a hasty explanation from a Foreign Ministry official. On Sept. 24, the prosecutors, including the public prosecutor-general, decided to release the captain without indictment. Then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama, who is currently the secretary-general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), recalls: “The decision might have been reached through a tacit understanding between Sengoku and the prosecutors.”


Judicial procedures require that a suspect be released without indictment when a decision on indictment is withheld due to lack of sufficient evidence or other reasons. As such, it can be said that Japan executed its judicial authority in the Senkaku boat incident. Fukuyama emphasized, “We adhered to Japanese judicial procedures. This was not a measure that was deliberately chosen to avoid trouble.”


However, given the existence of the live video of the moment of collision, which constituted indisputable evidence against the Chinese boat, some felt Japan buckled under pressure from China. In an unofficial document outlining the incident, a senior administration official rebutted the criticism that the government should have taken the case to court.


“Such a measure would constitute a war scenario in peacetime. Did Japanese society and business circles have the resolve and fortitude to withstand such a conflict with China amid Japan’s reliance on its economic power?”


China makes no concessions over matters concerning its sovereignty. This attitude was clearly displayed two years later when the Japanese government nationalized the Senkaku islands. Japan must not forget the inherent risk that exists in dealing with China.

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