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International relations

No compromise: How a decade-old clash points to China today

After Senkaku boat collision, Japan sought a solution, but Beijing held firm

A Chinese trawler rammed into a Japan Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands in 2010.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- As Japan finds itself in the middle of Washington and Beijing's feud, a lesson it learned 10 years ago about China may give a glimpse of diplomatic hurdles coming in the near future.

On Sept. 7, 2010, a Chinese trawler rammed into a Japan Coast Guard vessel near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. The captain of the trawler was detained, spiking tensions between the countries and a wave of anti-Japan protests across China.

China at the time refused to budge and admit the trawler was at fault, even behind close doors -- an incident that revealed a glimpse of how far the country would go to defend an issue it views as a nonnegotiable. Since then, the country has only grown more powerful militarily and economically.

Two weeks after the clash, a Japanese official bearing a secret message visited the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing to meet with Dai Bingguo, then China's top diplomat.

"If the Chinese side can cooperate, we can release the captain by the 29th," the Japanese official told Dai.

The plan, formulated by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, was to grant the captain a swift release if he acknowledged he had rammed into the Japanese Coast Guard vessel. Under such a scenario, a simple fine would settle the case.

Dai initially raised some objections, but fell silent as the official expanded on the plan. The option, called a summary indictment, would allow Japan to retain jurisdiction over the proceedings. But the captain would get his freedom quickly, in line with Chinese demands.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan had also wanted a swift release of the captain. Sengoku saw his plan as the only way to follow Japanese law and still resolve the situation quickly.

The only problem was that the Chinese captain was refusing to sign any documents, which was a necessary step in the process.

The Chinese trawler was detained by the Japan Coast Guard after a collision near the Senkaku Islands.

"A trial would take months," the Japanese official told Dai, urging Beijing to sway the captain.

The captain was refusing to sign because a Chinese embassy employee who met him shortly after his arrest had told him not to. China did not want to acknowledge Japanese jurisdiction over the incident, given its claims over the Senkakus.

Dai stood firm. He turned down the Japanese proposal and even refused to watch the video the Japanese official had brought of the crash. He did, however, promise to tell the Chinese leadership about it.

"I am extremely disappointed by your explanation," Dai said. "We cannot accept any type of indictment."

Dai stressed that the Japanese vessel rammed into the Chinese trawler, not the other way around, and argued that Japan was using the incident as an excuse to tighten its grip on the Senkakus.

The two officials shook hands at the end of their roughly two-hour meeting, but reached no compromise.

The following day, on Sept. 21, 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing had no choice but turn to extreme measures. Chinese rare-earth exports began facing delays at customs that day. Four Japanese nationals were detained around this time on suspicion of filming a restricted Chinese military facility. Many Japanese companies had their Chinese business partners cancel deals.

China claimed these events were unrelated to the Senkakus.

On Sept. 24, after consultation with the foreign ministry, Japanese prosecutors decided to defer their decision on whether to indict the Chinese captain -- something that often happens in cases with insufficient evidence, for example. The captain was released.

"Mr. Sengoku and the prosecutors were perfectly in sync," said Tetsuro Fukuyama, who was Sengoku's deputy at the time.

"It wasn't an easy out. We followed Japan's legal process to a tee," he said.

Some saw the decision as Japan bowing to Chinese pressure. But an official from the time dismissed such criticisms in a secret document summarizing the incident.

"Given Japan's dependency on the Chinese economy, could Japanese society and business have survived what was essentially a war in the midst of peace?" the official wrote. "Were we prepared, physically and mentally?"

China has made abundantly clear since then that it will not compromise on territorial issues, including when Japan nationalized the Senkakus in 2012. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and growing tensions between Beijing and Washington, Japan once again faces the question on whether it is ready to tackle big issues regarding its powerful neighbor -- and at what cost.

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