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劉廼強 | 1st Oct 2010 | SCMP | (14 Reads)

Taking another point of view to think empathetically, it is easy to understand that the past two weeks have been a now or never window of opportunity for Japan to exert its territorial claims of neighbouring waters.

On the one hand, China has overtaken Japan to become the No 2 economy in the world, and is widely tipped to be No1 in a decade or two. On the other, the US has recently changed its China policy and begun to play hardball. By taking this rare moment to ally itself with the current hegemonic power to suppress the re-emergence of its formidable neighbour, Japan must have calculated that it has much to gain. Thus, the recent Diaoyu Islands incident.

In the past two centuries, Japan has never sought to understand China and the Chinese people. Even in the early 1970s, when China was both militarily and economically weak, Beijing never conceded its rightful claim over the Diaoyu Islands and surrounding waters. What makes anyone think it would do so today?

Harvard Business School teaches that, in any negotiations, both sides have to consider what is called the best alternative to a negotiated arrangement (Batna). For the past 40 years, China has been trying hard to avoid a direct confrontation. It put aside the sovereignty issue and advocated joint development with a view to reaching a negotiated win-win arrangement.

But, once the captain of the fishing boat was put on trial in Japan, the situation was bound to degenerate past the point of no return. After Premier Wen Jiabao warned of further actions, Beijing's hands were tied.

Worst case scenario: is Japan really willing to risk a war with China? And will the US really support Japan on this unjustifiable venture, considering its current internal and external predicaments?

But make no mistake: Chinese are willing to defend this remote territory at all costs. China's batna is clear: what about that of Japan, and America?

In the end, it is this asymmetry of willpower that will decide which country prevails in the dispute. The release of the fishing boat skipper was predictable. It showed that you shouldn't pick a fight if you're unsure whether you will follow through to the end. It was very silly of Japanese politicians to instigate this provocation; it was bound to backfire.

From now on, there is no reason for China to maintain its ambiguous position. Instead, it can exert its sovereignty in the East China Sea, as well as the South China Sea and its islands. Who knows what might happen after that? Perhaps a rising tide of nationalism will sweep through Taiwan, with people rallying in defence of the mainland's territorial waters. Perhaps that would ultimately lead to more calls among Taiwanese for reunification.

One thing is for sure, whatever the outcome, we will see more Chinese patrols around the Diaoyu Islands in the immediate future. And Japanese politicians only have themselves to blame.