China Power

China’s Pyrrhic Victory?

China has managed to pressure Japan to back down over a detained fishing captain.

Japan has decided to return the Chinese fishing vessel captain it had detained over an incident involving two Japan Coast Guard ships. But the implications of this dispute are likely to be far reaching. Over the coming weeks we’ll be hearing a lot from analysts on what this row means for both countries, but in the meantime it’s clear it throws up a number of intriguing questions.

The most immediate is why Japan changed its mind now? According to Reuters, Japanese prosecutors overseeing the case went on record saying that the release reflected consideration for Sino-Japanese ties. But international relations surely exceed the job description of prosecutors.

China for its part will have felt that this was anyway not an appropriate case for a Japanese prosecutor to be dealing with because they already claim the islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. This difference in perceptions over the status of the islands goes a long way toward explaining why it has been so difficult for the two sides to find a mutually satisfactory way of tackling the problem, and to be fair to China it’s clear why if it claims the islands it wouldn’t necessarily have been content to let the Japanese legal process follow its natural course (although it also has to be said it’s becoming increasingly hard to find a body of water in Asia that China doesn’t claim).

And it’s this issue of regional claims that brings up another intriguing question – what on earth is China doing? In the latest instance, one Japanese commentator speculates in the Mainichi newspaper that internal politics are behind the tough stance with Japan, arguing that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are trying to deflect criticism from conservatives with a tough stance on this issue.

But with country after country this year it has appeared to many to go out of its way to rub neighbours up the wrong way over territorial issues – India, Japan, Vietnam – with sweeping claims or interference and sometimes threatening rhetoric. This has had the presumably unintended (but perfectly predictable) effect of drawing the United States closer to countries in the region. This is certainly set to be the case with Japan after this latest disagreement. US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen this week confirmed strong US backing for its ally over the issue, and China looks to have squandered an opportunity to exploit tensions over the differences between the US and Japan over security issues like the Futenma air base. Will China’s threatening of serious consequences for Japan be the kind of language that turns out to have pushed Japan back toward the US embrace, and will it give a further excuse for those pushing for greater investment in Japan’s military (I mean Self Defence Forces)?

On the face of it, Japan looks like the immediate loser after buckling under growing Chinese pressure. But this dispute has been carefully watched by other countries in the region (including the Japanese public). Chinese policymakers will need to ask themselves if its decision to escalate this issue so quickly and so vigorously will come back to haunt it. Certainly it won’t have done anything to reassure any of its neighbours that they have nothing at all to worry about over China’s rise.