By Peter Lee
Japan poured oil on troubled waters
In the fuss over Japan's detention of the Chinese fishing vessel and its captain, Zhan Qixiong, after a scuffle near the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, the world received a foretaste of how World War III might break out in the China Sea.
All it takes is a confrontation at some contested but otherwise insignificant rock, a combustible combination of rhetoric, provocation, and retaliation, an American propensity for meddling, and the participation of a credulous and obliging media ...
... and, perhaps, the active involvement of Japan, which already has some experience in igniting world wars in doomed attempts to extract itself from strategic and economic cul de sacs.
A fender-bender between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Coast Guard vessels on September 7 led to the detention of Zhan and the provocative assertion that his case would be adjudicated under Japanese domestic law, rather than resolved through some diplomatic back-and-forth between Tokyo and Beijing.
News reports indicate that Zhan was something of a hothead. All it took was a Japanese over-reaction to see him brought home a national hero.
Japan's hawkish minister Seiji Maehara can take a lion's share of the credit or blame for blowing up the incident. The Japanese newspaper Asahi reported the timeline as follows - Maehara was still Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism - in charge of the Coast Guard - at the time of the incident, he was appointed foreign minister on September 21.
Immediately after the trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels on Sept 7, Maehara called Coast Guard Commandant Hisayasu Suzuki and told him, "The captain of the Chinese fishing boat must be arrested."
Maehara also called Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and told him, "It is better to persist with a resolute attitude against China."
At first, China responded calmly.
Reflecting back on that time, a Chinese government source said, "By sticking to a calm response, China was trying to encourage Japan to release the captain on its own accord."
But Maehara refused to back down.
He told close aides: "The prime minister's office was hesitant so I had to make the decision to arrest the captain. There was no mistake in the handling of the matter." 
It was also interesting that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku story is not simply a matter of Japan standing up to the big Chinese bully.
By distance, geography, and history Taiwan has the best claim on what it calls the Tiaoyutai Islands, which Japan acquired during the course of some imperial skullduggery during the 1870s, and it responded to the incident by vociferously advancing its interest.
President Ma Ying-jeou, who has played the Tiaoyutai card his entire political career, dispatched 12 Coast Guard vessels to shield a boat of Taiwanese activists that made a symbolic approach within 19 miles of the island on September 15.
The Japanese Coast Guard warned them off. Taiwanese media reported:
On several occasions the Kan En No. 99," which means "Showing Grace" in the Chinese language, was just two meters from being rammed by Japan's patrol ships. 
After Captain Zhan's detention was extended - and it appeared he would soon be indicted in a Japanese court - China went ballistic, both in the public and official spheres.
Beijing canceled scheduled negotiations with Japan over undersea oil and gas deposits. It also canceled bilateral talks on airline flights and requested Chinese travel agencies not to accept applications for tour groups to visit Japan - scuppering two initiatives that Maehara had championed as tourism minister.
China allegedly cut off exports of rare earth oxides to Japan and detained four Japanese citizens in Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei province, for espionage-related activity, apparently as retaliation. Three of the men were released on Thursday but one remains in Chinese custody.
Judging from the Asahi article, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was not pleased that his term had begun with a major diplomatic dust-up courtesy of Maehara and his patron, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) secretary general Katsuya Okada.
Okada and Maehara are the two most powerful proponents of a strong US alliance within the traditionally leftist and non-aligned DPJ.
As exchanges with China became more heated, Maehara recklessly upped the ante by pulling in the United States.
After Maehara visited with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York, AFP reported:
"According to the Japanese minister, Clinton said that the Senkakus ... are subject to Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty, which authorizes the US to protect Japan in the event of an armed attack 'in the territories under the administration of Japan'," the report said. 
It appears that Maehara abused the secretary of state's confidence by making public her sensitive and probably strongly caveated assurances of US support for Japan, in order to relieve his personal political embarrassment.
Hopeful overreach continued with the Japanese press reporting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the United States' joint chiefs of staff, had, in the words of the Japanese public-service broadcaster NHK, "indicated that the US security agreement with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands". 
"Indicated" is much too strong a word.
The actual transcript of the Department of Defense briefing was long on waffling and offered nothing in the way of an explicit commitment:
Q Chinese Premier Wen in New York on Tuesday threatened action against Japan if it didn't return the captain of the ship. I'm wondering, does the US security umbrella extend to the Senkakus - the Senkaku islands?
ADM MULLEN: I think we're watching those - that tension very, very carefully, and certainly our commitment to the region remains. And, you know, we're hopeful that the political and diplomatic efforts would reduce that tension specifically, and haven't seen anything that would, I guess, raise the alarm levels higher than that. And obviously we're very, very strongly in support of, you know, our ally in that region, Japan.
Q And second -
SEC GATES: And we'll - and we would fulfill our alliance responsibilities. 
It appears that Kan cut the legs out from under Maehara and Okada in the best circular firing squad tradition of the hapless DPJ by agreeing to Zhan's release. The two hawks are striving to disguise their embarrassment with escalating anti-Chinese bluster.
At a time that China was saying that the case of Captain Zhan was "basically over with" , Maehara was claiming in the Japanese media that China's demand for an apology demonstrated its "undemocratic nature". He also made the provocative statement that China might be preparing to violate an agreement with Japan not to drill unilaterally for oil and gas in contested portions of the East China Sea.
Despite Japan's humiliation, the US may content itself with a propaganda windfall. Any threat, either real or imputed, that China will deploy its military, economic, and financial clout to advance its interests in the East and South China Seas, strengthens the desire of China's neighbors for a closer US alliance.
Doyle McManus, the Washington correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, delivered the conventional wisdom:
Because of China's truculence, US relations with Japan, Korea and Vietnam have almost never been better. 
Certainly, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have been more willing than before to yank the whiskers of the Chinese dragon.
It was Japanese, not Chinese truculence, that dictated the decision made at the cabinet level to arrest and try Zhan after the collision near Diaoyutai/Senkaku.
And, remarkably, Japan has also involved itself in China's other maritime headache: Vietnam's efforts to engage the United States as a counterweight to China, particularly over the nagging question of the Hoang Sa/Paracel/Xisha Islands in the South China Seas, which China seized from South Vietnam after a bloody encounter in 1974.
The issue has gained heightened visibility with the report that China "formally declared to the United States that the South China Sea is a core interest", implying to Western observers that China regarded the fate of the uninhabited islands and their associated oil and gas deposits as an existential issue presumably worthy of the aggressive attentions of the People's Liberation Army.
In keeping with the theme of dubious, thinly sourced news reports with a Japanese link, this news item is derived, virtually in its entirety, from a brief report filed by Kyodo News Service's Washington Bureau on July 3, that the Chinese stated this position to James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader when they were in Beijing in March 2010. 
The report is anonymously sourced from somebody who was apparently not directly involved in the meetings - the report states that the Chinese position was "presumably" conveyed by State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
It is also interesting that this world-historic scoop was leaked to a Japanese news office in Washington; none of the plugged-in American news organizations got the same story at that time (the only apparent corroboration is a statement in a July 2010 story by James Pomfret that Dai Bingguo has made the South China Sea core interest representation to Hillary Clinton during a "tense exchange" in May); and, as far as can be seen, nobody has ever asked Steinberg and Bader to confirm the report.
It would appear noteworthy that the Chinese thought fit to announce this position to the only party they are attempting to exclude from the South China Sea dispute - the United States - while not conveying it to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, or Indonesia - the interlocutors with whom it is trying to impose a series of bilateral negotiations.
China has never officially confirmed or denied the story.
As far as the public record goes, China is still committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (a standstill agreement negotiated with ASEAN in 2002), and negotiated settlements over disputed islands.
Within China, there can be found a certain skepticism that the South China Sea core interest statement went down the way the US said it did or, indeed, if it ever happened at all. 
However, the story is highly significant as it signaled a new eagerness by the United States to inject itself in the South China Sea disputes as the champion of Association of Southeast Asian Nations members - especially Vietnam - against Chinese territorial overreach....
The "core interest" story has been a public relations gold mine for the United States as China has watched in dismay and frustration as several ASEAN nations led by Vietnam and Singapore lined up with the United States to push for internationalizing the dispute.
However, US good faith in pushing the South China Sea issue up near the top of the agenda can be questioned.
The welter of sandbars and rocks present a nearly intractable problem even if all the concerned parties desire a friendly solution. In the unlikely event that the ASEAN countries can maintain a united front against China with US encouragement, it is unlikely that China can be persuaded to surrender its claims in an adversarial venue.
Benign neglect has served the South China Sea pretty well over the last three decades and would probably be the best way to handle the problem in the future. A universal commitment to free passage through the vital waterways of the archipelago - a principle already accepted by all parties to the myriad territorial, fishing, and undersea resource disputes - is probably worth the price of tacit acknowledgement of the less than ideal status quo.
The real story appears to be that Okada and Maehara were hoping to gain a favored position as the US surrogate on maritime issues involving China, and also make some diplomatic and business hay in Vietnam at China's expense.
In July, Okada was already working the South China Sea issue at the ASEAN Regional Forum.
In a deliberate echo of Clinton's notorious statement on July 23 injecting the US "national interest" into the South China Sea matter, Okada involved Japan:
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Tuesday expressed his concern over territorial disputes in the South China Sea mainly between China and Southeast Asian nations, saying the instability in the area could hamper Japan's trade and pose a threat to regional peace. ‘‘The instability deriving from differing views on territorial issues between China and ASEAN nations could undermine peace in Asia,'' Okada told a press . ‘‘We should get rid of such a destabilizing factor as soon as possible.'‘ Given the realities of the situation, the eagerness of the US and Japan to work through the Western press to hype the South China Sea issue into a crisis - and the press's understandable willingness to go along, even at the cost of its own embarrassment - is worth noting.
A September 22 Wall Street Journal piece entitled "US, ASEAN to Push Back Against China" offered what it sold as a privileged preview of the ASEAN-US joint statement blockbuster:
On Friday, Mr Obama and the Asean leaders will issue a joint statement in which Washington has proposed text reaffirming the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, according to the Associated Press.Japan's NHK obtained a copy of the same draft (bear in mind that Japan was not party to the agreement and not the most likely conduit for a leak).  Headline writers throughout the world ran with leads like "US backs ASEAN stand against use of force in Spratlys " .
It said the statement would oppose the "use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea."
The wording is significant - and provocative for China - because it mirrors that of a speech by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at another Asean meeting in Hanoi in July.
However, the actual text of the joint statement  said nothing about disputes in the South China Sea.
Apparently, the edifice of US-ASEAN solidarity was not strong enough to withstand a strong, disapproving shove administered publicly by China's Foreign Ministry on September 21 and undoubtedly through numerous private channels. 
Having blown the story on the content of the joint announcement, the Wall Street Journal compounded its reportorial difficulties in an untimely encomium celebrating collective Japanese and ASEAN backbone vis a vis China:
Japan - the main US ally in the region - is leading the way in confronting China, taking an unusually firm line in a dispute over a collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Coast Guard ships near disputed islands in the East China Sea two weeks ago.Four days later, Japan folded and returned Captain Zhan.
Evidence of the backlash - and its effect on China - is apparent in the current dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the ship collision near the disputed islands called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Japan has released the trawler and the 14 crew, but continues to detain the ship's captain.
China has summoned Japan's ambassador six times and suspended high-level government exchanges. Mr Wen, China's premier, personally demanded the captain's release on Tuesday. Yet Tokyo has stood firm, apparently gambling that Beijing doesn't want to damage commercial relations or provoke the kind of anti-Japanese violence that almost spiraled out of control during a similar row in 2005.
"Clinton's stand in Hanoi may have contributed to Japan's demonstration of more backbone than most of us give it credit for having in its current territorial confrontation with China," said Mark Borthwick, director of the United States Asia Pacific Council at the East-West Center in Washington.
The unambiguous victory for China makes it hard to give credence to assertions that China's foreign policy is out of control and driven by weakness, arrogance, runaway PLA hotheads, or cadet Politburo members recklessly burnishing their nationalistic credentials in the run-up to China's generational leadership change, due in 2013.
Nevertheless, John Pomfret did his best to spin a clear-cut diplomatic victory for Beijing as evidence of China's foreign policy dysfunction:
The increasingly bitter dispute between China and Japan over a small group of islands in the Pacific is heightening concerns in capitals across the globe over who controls China's foreign policy.USA Today pitched in, graciously ignoring Maehara's role in intentionally escalating the confrontation with a story under the headline, "China's Aggressive Posture Stuns Japan, Experts". 
A new generation of officials in the military, key government ministries and state-owned companies has begun to define how China deals with the rest of the world. Emboldened by China's economic expansion, these officials are taking advantage of a weakened leadership at the top of the Communist Party to assert their interests in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.
It used to be that Chinese officials complained about the Byzantine decision-making process in the United States. Today, from Washington to Tokyo, the talk is about how difficult it is to contend with the explosion of special interests shaping China's worldview.
"Now we have to deal across agencies and departments and ministries," said a US official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ties with China. "The relationship is extraordinarily complex."
Said a senior Japanese diplomat: "We, too, are often confused about China's intentions and who is calling the shots." 
McClatchy, at least, indulged in honest sour grapes resentment: "Is a rising China getting too big for its britches?". 
The fine lines between spin, self-delusion, and lazy disregard for geopolitical realities seem to be blurring, at least in the foreign affairs quadrant of the Western media.
The simplest explanation of China's response was that China's elites and public were united in their anger at Japan's deliberate and provocative high-handedness over the issue of Captain Zhan; and the Chinese leadership recognized that any sign of weakness on Diaoyutai/Senkaku might encourage Vietnamese moves on the Paracels
The true lesson of the manufactured crises at Diaoyutai/Senkaku and in the South China Seas is that on regional matters China will ferociously oppose would-be US proxies like Japan and Vietnam if they presume to advance US interests at Chinese expense.
The other lesson seems to be that China and its neighbors and enemies now realize that Beijing can and will deploy its preferred asymmetric weapons - diplomatic pressure, economic coercion, legal jeopardy for foreign nationals and their interests - with far more speed and determination than the US and its allies can bring to bear the overwhelming military superiority that is supposed to give America its unanswerable advantage in East Asia.
The United States and its Asian partners have done a good job of irritating China; they have yet to prove they can do as good a job of dealing with the consequences.
1. Conditions were ripe for an escalating dispute with China, Asashi Shimbun, September 29.
2. Convoy escorts Tiaoyutai protest boat, China Post, September 15.
3 . Clinton says disputed islands part of Japan-US pact: Maehara AFP, September 24.
4. Gates: US security alliance covers the islands "administrated by Japan", NHK, September 24.
5. DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm Mullen from the Pentagon, US Department of Defense, September 23.
6. State Dept, Daily Press Breifing, US Department of State, September 24.
7. Chinese official says dispute with Japan mostly over with', The Mainichi Daily News, September 29.
8. Doyle McManus: China tests the military waters and stirs up apprehension, Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 28.
9. China told the South China Sea Meigao Guan is clear that the coreinterests of China Kyodo, July 3.
10. Unwise to elevate "South China Sea" to be core interest ?People's Daily Online, August 27.
11. Okada airs concern over territorial disputes in South China SeaJapan Today, July 27.
12. Draft of "US-ASEAN joint statement" obtained by NHK, NHK, September 17.
13. US backs ASEAN stand against use of force in SpratlysPhilippine Daily Inquirer, September 20.
14. Joint Statement of 2nd US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, New Asia Republic, September 25.
15. China "concerned" possible US-ASEAN statement on S China Sea, Xinhua, September 21 16. Dispute with Japan highlights China's foreign-policy power struggle, Washington Post, September 24.
17. China's aggressive posture stuns Japan, experts, USA Today, September 28.
18. Is a rising China getting too big for its britches?, McClatchy Newspapers, September 24