Dispute with Japan highlights China's foreign-policy power struggle

China's government cancels high-level talks with Japan, following Japan's announcement that it will hold a Chinese fishing boat captain for another ten days.
Disputed island chain, Senkakus or Diaoyu Islands
Gene Thorp/ The Washington Post
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 7:43 AM

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.

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 U.S. 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."

Japanese officials said the People's Liberation Army is responsible for the friction over the disputed island chain, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. In early September, Japan's coast guard detained the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler, accusing him of ramming a Japanese coast guard vessel. In previous crises, China's Foreign Ministry has acted as a calming influence, but this time, Japanese diplomats said, the military led the charge.

China responded by demanding the captain's release, suspending talks, canceling the visits of Japanese schoolchildren and on Thursday arresting four Japanese who allegedly were taking photographs near a Chinese military installation.

In an apparent effort to defuse the escalating tensions, Japan announced Friday that it would release the Chinese captain.

Washington signaled to Beijing on Thursday that it would back Japan in the territorial dispute. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: "Obviously we're very, very strongly in support of . . . our ally in that region, Japan."

Other examples

The island dispute is the latest instance of players other than the party's central leadership driving China's engagement with the outside world.

Throughout this year, officials from the Ministry of Commerce, who represent China's exporters, have lobbied vociferously against revaluing China's currency, the yuan, despite calls to the contrary from the People's Bank of China and the Ministry of Finance.

In Iran, China's state-owned oil companies are pushing to do more business, even though Beijing backed enhanced U.N. sanctions against Tehran because of its alleged nuclear weapons program. The China National Offshore Oil Co. is in talks to ramp up its investment in the massive Azadegan oil field just as Japanese companies are backing out, senior diplomatic sources said. The move by CNOOC would have the effect of "gutting" the new sanctions, one diplomat said. U.S. officials have stressed to China that they do not want to see China's oil companies "filling in" as other oil companies leave, a senior U.S. official said.

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