Japan and China go fishing for trouble
A seemingly minor maritime incident last week -- a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese coast guard vessels -- is quickly turning into a significant diplomatic crisis. What remains to be seen is whether the ensuing diplomatic standoff will add to the region's growing concerns over China and whether Japan's surprising obstinacy over this incident foreshadows a more hawkish Japanese defense policy.
On Sept. 9, during a seasonal uptick in the number of Chinese fishing boats near the disputed, uninhabited, and Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese patrol boats. According to officials in Tokyo, the fishing boat refused orders to submit to an inspection and to leave the area. After an initial investigation, the Japanese government released the boat and the crew. But it retained custody of the boat's captain, turning him over to prosecutors for trial. A Japanese judge has given prosecutors until Sept. 19 to file charges against him.
What started as a a minor scuffle has escalated. Over the past week, the Chinese government has summoned Japan's ambassador five times. China delayed a senior parliamentarian's visit to Japan and postponed talks over natural gas exploration in the East China Sea. The customary annual meeting between the Chinese premier and the Japanese prime minister at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York next week has not been scheduled. Meanwhile, Japan's transport minister appeared at the nearby coast guard base to praise the crews for their capture of the captain. The Japanese embassy in Beijing warned Japanese citizens in China to lay low. Finally, anti-Japanese activists from both China and Taiwan -- which both claim the Senkaku Islands -- formed flotillas to sail to the barren rocks.
Just as the fishing boat incident began to boil, Japan's defense ministry released its annual white paper on defense policy. This year's report included a particularly detailed accounting of recent Chinese air and naval incursions near Japan-claimed territory. The white paper follows the recent diplomatic clash at the July ASEAN meeting in Hanoi over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In spite of the white paper's much more explicit description of China's growing military assertiveness, the report did not call for any material changes in Japan's defense program. The report made note of continuing declines in Japan's defense spending and manpower levels.
It is hard to imagine a worse time for Japan's government to contemplate a controversial change to its defense policy. Its fiscal outlook and floundering economy are as bad as any in the developed world. Recent prime ministers have been lucky to last a year in office. And Japan's dispute with the United States over bases on Okinawa remains unresolved.
All of which makes the Japanese government's refusal to release the Chinese fishing captain all the more remarkable. Against all expectations, someone in Tokyo has decided to stand up to Beijing. Could the Japanese government be making a case to the public for a more hawkish defense policy? Policymakers in the region are no doubt wondering what the consequences of this standoff will be.