Two ships go bump in the night near some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese Coast Guard arrests the captain of the Chinese vessel for illegally fishing in their territorial waters. The Chinese react violently, exploding the issue into a diplomatic row of utmost importance. From afar, there is nothing odd about the event. Fishing vessels are often caught operating inside territorial or disputed waters. Many boats are impounded and captains arrested, but few cause the uproar as what was recently seen between these two Asian giants. Did it reflect the growing rivalry between China and Japan, or was it the result of a much deeper problem that could move center stage. The answer lies closer to the latter rather than the former.
Relations between China and Japan have always been touch and go. However, they were recently on the upswing. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan took office this year vowing to push for better relations with China. Japan’s recent dispute with the U.S. over its bases in Okinawa was seen as a shift away from the U.S. orbit and a move into the Chinese sphere of influence. Indeed, the rhetoric from Beijing towards Tokyo also improved during most of the year. However, the fishing incident struck a raw Chinese nerve, and it is an indication of serious problems that will surface in the future. As in all countries, China is concerned about its territorial integrity and access to global markets. This is one of the reasons why it is so obsessed with developing its western territories. Thousands of years ago, it realized that the construction of a thick wall was not enough to prevent territorial encroachment. China realized that it needs to populate those western lands in order to create a natural buffer to protect the huge population base that resides along the littoral. China seems to be fairly comfortable with the headway that it is making. Moreover, it feels insulated by the phalanx of Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which popped after the demise of the Soviet Union. However, it also faces major problems on its eastern seaboard. Although China enjoys a wide range of year-around deep-water ports and several major river systems that penetrate deep into the country, it is boxed in by a ring of islands and nations that can easily choke off its access to the global marketplace. Starting with the East China Sea, it is ring-fenced by South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Moving clockwise, the South China Sea is bracketed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Not coincidently, all of these countries are close allies and/or client states of the U.S., with several major military bases at its disposal. Moreover, more than two-thirds of China’s energy shipments traverse across the Indian Ocean and through the Straits of Malacca. Therefore, it is little wonder why Beijing is feeling claustrophobic.
The fishing incident off the coast of Diaoyutai, an over-sized seamount in the chain of Senkaku Islands, had little to do with the indignation that was suffered by an overly-aggressive fishing captain or the violation of the so-called “sacred islands,” but it had everything to do with the fact that China is feeling boxed in. Beijing wants to leave the impression that it is not going to be cornered in by the Japanese Coast Guard, or anyone else. This is the reason why the Chinese have been devoting more resources to building a true Blue Water Navy. Instead of going down the British route and building expensive (and obsolete) aircraft carriers, the Chinese are fitting out a new submarine fleet. They know all too well, that the real heroes of the Pacific War against Japan were not the Hellcat bombers or Corsair pilots. They were the American submarine skippers that sent most of the Japanese merchant fleet down to the bottom of the ocean. This is what brought Japan to its knees. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service concluded that the Chinese submarine fleet will eclipse its U.S. counterpart in less than 15 years. The PLA is putting the finishing touches on a major naval base in Hainan that will include an underground pen for 20 advanced nuclear submarines. This is why the Chinese Navy is becoming more antagonistic against the Seventh Fleet, and its operations in the South and East China Seas. Beijing knows very well, that an escalation of tensions with the U.S. over trade, currency controls or access to commodities could find itself easily shut off from the international markets. It also understands that China is totally dependent on imported raw materials and external buyers to keep its factories going and its workers employed. Therefore, it is not too surprising to see Beijing become overly sensitive when it sees one of its vessels go bump in the night near one of the gateways to the open Pacific.