Fisherman's arrest in Asia: China and Japan must not trawl for trouble

Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing captain in disputed waters reveals sharp tensions over regional dominance. The incident requires a calm resolution.

Half of humanity lives in Asia, which makes it troubling when an incident triggers tensions over which nation will dominate the region in the 21st century.

Right now that tension is focused on Zhan Qixiong, the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel captured by Japan on Sept 7. Just how and when he is released will be a clue as to whether Asia will enjoy a peaceful future.

Mr. Zhan and his crew of 14 were arrested after fishing too close to a set of islands claimed by both China and Japan. The crew has since been released, but the captain is charged in Japanese court with ramming a Coast Guard vessel.

He is a pawn in a test of wills between China and Japan (and by proxy, the United States) over who will call the shots in Asia. With its burgeoning economy and Navy, China seeks to displace the US as the longtime guardian of Asia’s peace – and to keep Japan in line as well.

The contest has so far come in many venues – trade deals, territorial claims, and encounters on the high seas. But Zhan’s detention has evoked strong emotions, revealing a China more eager to assert itself and a Japan more willing to stand up to its giant neighbor.

Japan treated the arrest of the fishing trawler as a domestic legal case, which particularly irked Beijing. Tokyo may feel emboldened because its chief ally, the US, has shown a new willingness to confront China’s belligerent actions toward other Asian nations. The Obama administration recently sent more naval ships to the region while also openly siding with many Southeast Asian nations in their confrontation with Beijing over claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Japan’s century-long control of the uninhabited islands it calls Senkaku (and which China calls Diaoyu) has irritated the Chinese since the 1970s, when off-shore near the islands became of interest. That history colors the current responses and is one reason that calm is needed to resolve the issue.

China, however, has escalated the incident. It has hinted it might start to explore for oil off the islands, which could provoke a maritime showdown. It has allowed an anti-Japanese protest to take place in Beijing on Sept. 18, broken off high-level diplomacy with Japan, canceled cultural exchanges, and used harsh and threatening language. A Japanese band popular in Asia, SMAP, has even had to postpone its tour in China.

It remains unclear whether China sought this confrontation by encouraging more Chinese boats to fish off the disputed islands. Japan’s charge that Zhan deliberately rammed his boat into the Japanese ship has helped fuel such speculation.

Japan also claims that China has lately been sending its naval vessels into Japanese waters and that its helicopters buzzed its destroyers. One factor may be that China appears to be having an internal power struggle over who will replace the current leadership of the Communist Party in 2012.

What may ultimately help resolve this issue is the fact that China – not the US – is now Japan’s biggest trading partner. That historic shift may be why Japan just signed a major economic partnership with Asia’s other big power, India. Japanese investments in India are now comparable to those in China.

Japan plans to indicate by Sept. 29 whether it will indict Zhan. Until then, both countries may further posture to signal their future intentions about their role in Asia. That sort of thinking, of course, reflects a zero-sum mentality that assumes only one country can have ultimate influence in a region of nearly 5 billion people.

As Europe did after World War II, Asia needs to set up viable regional organizations that dissipate power from any one country. China is reluctant to do that. Its recent aggressive claims to many islands is a cause for worry. Both Japan and the US must be smart and calm in how they respond.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial mischaracterized the length of Japan's ownership of the Senkaku Islands.]

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