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China, Japan go toe-to-toe over islets

Analysis: Minor spat over fishing rights reveals shifting power balance in Asia.

Chinese fishing boats
Chinese fishing boats are berthed along the coast in Jinjiang, in southeast China's Fujian province on Sept. 9, 2010, where Zhan Qixiong the 41-year-old Chinese captain and his crew set sail before being arrested by Japanese authorities. (AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China and Japan, now the world's No. 2 and No. 3 economies, have become embroiled in a nasty diplomatic dispute over a group of obscure islets northeast of Taiwan.

The tempest reflects China's growing assertiveness in defending its territorial claims, China's emergence as the world's fishing superpower and its bid to challenge Japan's dominance of East Asia, say analysts.

Most believe the two nations' greater-than-ever economic inter-dependence will ensure that cool heads prevail. But it's a prelude of things to come, as China's rise slowly but surely shifts the balance of power in Asia.

The spat began Tuesday when a Chinese fishing trawler twice collided with Japanese coast guard vessels near islets claimed by both countries and Taiwan. (Chinese and Japanese media give differing, "he-said, she-said" accounts of who exactly rammed who.)

But it quickly escalated when Japan on Wednesday arrested the captain of the Chinese boat (the crew were detained) and sent him to prosecutors today. He could stand trial, and Chinese media said he faces up to three years in jail.

China made several high-level protests, and a foreign ministry spokesperson made unusually shrill comments in a briefing today, saying Japan's handling of the incident was "absurd, illegal and invalid," according to the state-run Xinhua news service.

"We hope that the Japanese side thoroughly considers the seriousness and graveness of this incident, and release the crew and vessel immediately so as to avoid further deterioration of the situation and escalation," the spokesperson said, according to Xinhua.

"If not handled properly, [the issue] will seriously undermine the general situation of China-Japan relations."

Some 30 Chinese nationalists protested outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Chinese media are having a field day with the spat, with and (Global Times) dedicating multimedia web pages to the story, complete with maps, animation and video and all the latest breaking developments.

Chinese media reported today that the captain's mother, fraught with worry over her son's ordeal, had passed away.

Competing claims

The uninhabitable islets in question have a tangled history, and an outsized influence on regional affairs. The Chinese call them the Diaoyu, the Japanese say Senkaku and the Taiwanese call them the Diaoyutai island chain or simply the "Diaoyutai."

Nearby natural gas resources make the islets' location strategic. All three nations insist they're the rightful owner. But Japan has had greatest effective control, patrolling the area with coast guard ships after the U.S. turned over Okinawa (and, Japan argues, the Senkakus) to Japanese control in 1972. Right-wing Japanese groups have also built light houses on a couple of the islets, bolstering Tokyo's claim.

The dispute has long simmered on a low boil, with all sides usually having bigger fish to fry. But China's strong reaction to the latest incident reflects a newfound swagger, as the rising Asian power seeks to enforce a range of territorial claims, said Asia security expert and longtime China-watcher Willy Lam.

"Beijing wants to make the point that it's now taking a much more proactive stance about its sovereignty claims, not just in the Diaoyu, but also the Spratly and Paracel Islands," said Lam, referring to two island groups in another Asian flashpoint, the South China Sea. "It wants to show a harsher line."

China may also may be taking advantage of a "semi-vacuum" in Japanese politics, said Lam: Prime Minister Naoto Kan faces a leadership challenge from his own party's "shadow shogun," Ichiro Ozawa, next week and "no one seems to be calling the shots," he said.

Expanding fishing fleet

Another important factor is behind this week's tiff: China's emergence as a fishing superpower. In a paper last year, the U.S. Naval War College's Lyle Goldstein noted that by 2007, China's annual catch of 17 million tons of fish was four times that of its nearest competitor, and far greater than that of Japan or the U.S.

It boasts some 300,000 motorized fishing vessels, which have been involved in disputes with the U.S. Navy, the Indonesian coast guard and now Japan, and an increasingly aggressive Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, which has itself seized Vietnamese fishing vessels in the South China Sea, straining ties with that country too.