Trawler incident
By Corey Velgersdyk Contributor October 4, 2010

On September 7th, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in the waters of the disputed islands known as the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China. The captain of the fishing trawler, Zhan Qixiong, was arrested and held by Japanese authorities until September 24th. Qixiong’s detention prompted a Chinese ban of the exporting of rare earth elements to Japan. Tensions have heightened since Zhan’s release as both countries have demanded apologies and compensation. While the territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands has produced tensions in the past, the escalation of a small incident to a major showdown continues to alarm East Asian political analysts.

The tough stances taken by China and Japan regarding this incident are best understood in the context of East Asia’s precarious security situation. Japan and China are firmly locked in a security dilemma; any effort by one to increase its military capabilities, even if they are intended solely for defense, is perceived to threaten the security of the other. Often this will produce an arms race, where both states expand their military capabilities in an effort to balance the other unless conflict breaks out, one side concedes inferiority, or an understanding can be reached. But the relationship between China and Japan has unfolded differently.

With forces deployed forward in Japan and South Korea, the United States maintains a strong presence in East Asia and guarantees the security of Japan. The U.S. security commitment allows Japan to structure its military capabilities solely for defensive purposes, thereby complying with its pacifist constitution.. This arrangement eases the pressure of the security dilemma by providing for Japan’s security without Japan enlarging its offensive military capabilities. However, this solution only works if both parties are content with the United States being the guarantor of Japan’s security. Chinese leadership has gone on record stating they prefer a strong U.S. presence to a more militarized Japan. Japan has honored this arrangement, although there are some who advocate changing the constitution to remove the constraints placed on the Japanese military.

The real conflict between China and Japan is not about a fisherman’s trawler colliding with a couple of patrol boats, but rather the perceptions they have about each other’s intentions. Japan is concerned that China is not the “responsible stakeholder” that it purports to be and is unwilling to accept the status quo in East Asia. In the past, China has shown a willingness to settle disputes through discussions and multilateral forums. But insistence by China on the right of its boats to fish the disputed waters of the East China Sea is perceived by the Japanese government as a threatening assertion of territorial claims.

China has actually reserved its harshest criticism for the United States. Chinese commentators claim that the United States feels threatened by China’s rise and exploits China’s disagreements with its neighbors to undermine that rise. The biggest concern is that a fear of China’s rise could weaken U.S. resolve to limit Japan’s military and withdraw its guarantee of security. Add a struggling economy and the not inconsiderable cost of maintaining that guarantee, this concern of China is not unreasonable.

Nevertheless, there is room for optimism. A failure on the part of China or Japan to prevent this incident from developing into a diplomatic crisis does not necessarily mean that either state intends to drastically alter the current system of East Asia. One example does not make a pattern. Moreover, the current system is beneficial to both China and Japan. China is Japan’s largest trading partner in terms of imports and exports. Japan is China’s largest source of imports and one of its largest buyers of exports. Both Japan and China benefit from the U.S. presence. And more importantly, both governments appreciate that fact. There is far too much at stake with both Japan and China for an incident like this to develop into much more than a bump in the road.

Any incident with security ramifications will be difficult for states to work out painlessly. This is especially true when both states have nationalistic movements within their populations that demand a strong stance. Nevertheless, the confrontation that followed the trawler incident was handled peacefully, even if the dialogue was vitriolic at times. The dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands is far from settled but both Japan and China have demonstrated a willingness to manage the conflict by pacific means. The trawler incident highlighted the difficulty of settling the dispute, but ultimately it did not threaten the possibility of an eventual peaceful settlement between China and Japan.

The photo in this article is being used under creative commons licensing. The original source can be found here.