There is reason to be concerned about the spat between China and Japan, which erupted over a Chinese fishing trawler that entered the disputed waters of the Senkaku Island chain on September 7 and then proceeded to collide with two Japanese coastguard ships. The Japanese arrested the trawler’s master, releasing him finally on Friday after a mounting series of threats from China. Beijing cut off shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan — a blow to the Japanese auto and high-tech industries — and is now reportedly subjecting 90 percent of Japan-bound commercial shipments to bureaucratic inspections.
China is apparently doubling down on its confrontational posture, in ways that make it harder for both sides to revert to the status quo ante. This weekend the Chinese demanded an apology and monetary restitution from Japan. On Monday the Naoto Kan government in Tokyo, stung by editorial opposition to its release of the Chinese fishing captain last week, countered with a demand for compensation from China for the damage to its coastguard ships.
Difficult as such positions can be for Asian nations to draw back from, it’s China’s prosecution of a material stake in the disputed economic zone off the Senkaku Islands that may keep both sides in confrontation. Japan has reportedly identified Chinese drilling equipment in the disputed area and suspects that Beijing is preparing to drill for natural gas there. Oil and gas exploration by both nations goes back to 2004; Japan has already stated concerns that drilling performed within China’s acknowledged economic zone could tap gas reserves in the area claimed by Tokyo. Taiwan is another claimant to economic rights in the area, a factor that serves to complicate relations among the parties.
China has assumed a position it cannot back off from gracefully — and one involving its most important economic interests. The outcome of this confrontation will be a point of no return in one way or another. Neither China nor Japan will rest if it loses this face-off. More than economic assets are at stake; this is about power relations and the future of Asia. Of greatest concern in all of this is the basic fact that China was emboldened to pick this fight. Beijing apparently calculates that the U.S. will acquiesce in whatever de facto diplomatic triumph China’s leaders can achieve over Japan.
Japan is unlikely to back down, however. The outcome of this incident matters too greatly to its national future. It’s trite to talk about being at a crossroads, but that’s because the metaphor usually fits. Americans are faced with a choice of our own in this situation: either we are relevant to its resolution — a resolution involving one of our closest allies — or we are not. If we’re not, the status quo of the “Pax Americana” will not last much longer.