2010 Senkaku Fishing Boat Case Holds Lessons for Countering China Tactics

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan Coast Guard boats confront a China Coast Guard boat (center) off the Senkaku Islands.

Small islands administered by Taiwan approximately 200 kilometers from its main island but only a few kilometers from the People’s Republic of China are once again at the center of confrontations across the Taiwan Strait. Since the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Kinmen Islands have been the front line of multiple military and political conflicts between the two sides.

In February, two crew members of a Chinese fishing boat drowned when their boat capsized while attempting to escape pursuit by a Taiwan’s Coast Guard ship that was patrolling waters under Taiwan’s jurisdiction when it discovered the Chinese boat operating there.

Since then, China Coast Guard (CCG) ships have been regularly deployed in waters around Kinmen, and tensions are once again rising. Five days after the incident, the CCG announced a policy of strengthening patrols around the Kinmen Islands, and personnel from a Chinese government ship suddenly boarded a Taiwan tourist ship for an inspection. In the middle of March, four CCG ships entered waters under Taiwan’s jurisdiction. China is clearly trying to undermine or deny Taiwan authorities’ jurisdiction over those waters.

This incident hearkens back to 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided with and damaged Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels off the Senkaku Islands of Japan in the East China Sea.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, on March 7, Shigeru Kitamura, who served as secretary general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat, pointed out: “We can have some similar perspective over this [Kinmen] incident with Senkaku … It is called salami tactics.”

Unfortunately, the administration of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan made a fatal error in its response to the Senkaku fishing boat collision, causing China to act boldly in the waters. The Japanese government arrested the Chinese captain of the fishing boat and began a criminal case against him according to the Japanese law. In response, the administration of then Chinese President Hu Jintao launched a series of countermeasures, including the suspension of ministerial-level visits between the two countries and the restriction of rare earth exports to Japan. China even detained employees of Japanese private-sector companies, claiming that they were suspected of espionage. Bowing to Chinese pressure, the Kan administration released the Chinese captain without indictment and sent him back to China.

But did that ease the tension? On the contrary, China built on its momentum to strengthen its claim to the Senkaku Islands and began to send fishing surveillance ships into Japan’s contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands on a regular basis. China’s attempts to change the status quo over the Senkaku Islands began in 2008 by Chinese government ships violating the territorial waters. After the 2010 incident, these violations became the norm, exploding in frequency after the Japanese government nationalized the Senkaku Islands in 2012.

The salami-slicing tactics that Kitamura mentioned are also known as gray zone tactics, referring to the act of attempting to change the status quo and forcing acceptance of one’s own claims and demands through frequent presence by one party using forceful organizations, etc., to the extent that it does not constitute an armed attack, when there are conflicting claims to territory, sovereignty, maritime rights, and other interests between nations. Senkaku and Kinmen are the perfect cases to show how China utilizes this tactic.

Seiji Maehara, the minister in charge of the Japan Coast Guard in the Kan administration when the Senkaku incident happened, told me in an interview: “China, which had appeared conciliatory, showed its long-hidden claws to the outside world, and changed to a coercive attitude. It opened our eyes to recognize that China is a country that seeks to change the status quo by force.” Maehara, known as a longtime “China hawk,” advised the PM’s office to have the Chinese captain officially arrested.

The Senkaku incident even impacted the U.S. perspective toward China. Immediately after the Chinese captain was arrested, Maehara was appointed foreign minister and was scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York. The administration of then President Barack Obama had never directly stated that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty would apply to the Senkaku islands. There seems to have been tension between some aides who took a conciliatory view of China, while others, including then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell (now a deputy secretary of state in the administration of President Joe Biden), took a hard line. At that time, the United States maintained the engagement policy with China.

A day before meeting with Clinton, Maehara met his longtime friend Campbell at the Consulate General of Japan in New York. In their conversation, Maehara asked Campbell to persuade Clinton to announce that Article 5 applies to the Senkaku Islands to deter China. Concerned about the situation, Campbell did so, and Clinton became the first U.S. cabinet minister to declare the application of Article 5 to the islands. According to Maehara, Clinton shared her harsh view of China at the meeting and said that China’s latest shift was a “wake-up call” for the United States and other countries to recognize its true nature.

To understand Beijing’s apparent change in behavior, it is perhaps important to look back a little further than the 2010 incident. In 2008, China successfully held the Beijing Olympics and was about to take over Japan’s world No. 2 status in GDP. It was a time when China’s confidence as a major power was increasing. A discourse began to emerge within China that rejected the policy of “hide and bide” advocated by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s. In retrospect, the Senkaku incident was the first glimpse of the mindset shift and China’s hegemonic behavior, which would become even more evident in the administration of Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu Jintao as president in 2012.

Beyond the Senkaku Islands and the Taiwan Strait, it is apparent that China is also using its gray zone tactics against the Philippines over the South China Sea. Another treaty ally of the United States, the Philippine administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which is vastly inferior in terms of military power to the People’s Liberation Army, has demonstrated tenacity in confronting China.

Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez said: “The South China Sea is a flashpoint. If something happens to the Philippines, we will all be affected, and eventually the whole world will be affected.” The ambassador stressed: “We welcome aid, especially from our one and only ally, the United States. But if we must do it on our own, we will do it. President Marcos is determined to defend the integrity of our territory.”

The inconsistent behavior of the Japanese government during the Senkaku incident served as a major lesson for later administrations. Maehara told me that the Japanese government at the time said that it had released the captain based on an independent decision by prosecutors, but, in fact, it was because of Kan’s directive. When Maehara and Foreign Ministry officials met with Kan before his visit to the United States, the prime minister insisted in a strong tone that the captain should be extradited to China, stating that the APEC summit scheduled to be held in Japan two months later would be “disastrous if Hu Jintao does not come.” Maehara insisted that Hu’s absence from the APEC event would only hurt China’s national interests but not Japan’s — but Kan did not listen.

The aim of China’s gray zone strategy is ultimately to exhaust its opponents and bring them to their knees by launching incessant attacks. This is a remarkable example of political will being defeated by Chinese political pressure and Japan’s national interests being undermined. It should be clear then that in dealing with China, political will and consistency are what matter most.

On May 20, Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te will take office as president. The administration of current President Tsai Ing-wen is handling the Kinmen Island situation with sufficient calm. Lai, who has been viewed as advocating “Taiwan independence” relatively more strongly than Tsai, should learn from Japan’s past mistakes, never lose his cool, and respond to China’s gray zone tactics from a long-term perspective. Unlike 14 years ago, wariness of China and its gray-zone strategy is now common and pervasive in all countries.

Riley Walters, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, offered the following view of the region: “The Lai administration is going to continue to receive U.S. support. If China acts poorly around the inauguration, this could further encourage more international support for Taiwan. Countries like Japan and the Philippines are already concerned with China’s gray zone activities and working with the U.S. to respond to these new threats. There’s a lot of cooperation for the U.S. and Taiwan on gray zone issues in addition to the traditional military development that’s already happening.”

On April 11, Japan, the United States, and the Philippines will have their first trilateral summit in history. The main agenda items will be the South and East China Seas, as well as dealing with attempts to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan, which has no formal diplomatic ties with those three countries, will not be present at the summit, but it is in fact a major player in the region.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yuko Mukai

Yuko Mukai is a Washington correspondent of The Yomiuri Shimbun.