Today, September 19th,was seen by many as a crucial crunch-point in Sino-Japanese relations, with Japanese courts having to decide whether to extend the detention of the Chinese trawler captain or set him free. Over the last few days, China has been putting mounting pressure on Japan to end what it has called an “illegal” imprisonment, with the whole affair becoming more and more important for relations between the two countries as each day passes.
Hopes of a resolution to the disagreement have been scuppered with the news that a Japanese court has ruled in favour of holding the captain for a further ten days, while investigations continue into the collision between the Chinese trawler and two Japanese coastguard ships in the East China Sea. Needless to say, in China the move has been greeted by the government with further anger. Xinhua reported comments made by a foreign ministry spokesperson, who said that Sino-Japanese relations have been “severely hurt”. The statement also carried a warning that China will take “strong counter measures” if Japan continues to hold the captain.
There has to be a point when the PRC will be spurred into taking action to remedy the situation, although it is hard to know when this will be reached. Since the news of the extension broke, China has already suspended talks at nearly all levels of government, with several planned meetings over issues like coal and aviation also being postponed indefinitely. However, the longer China continues to put pressure on Japan without success, the weaker the former looks. The whole controversy is focused on issues of national pride and international image- these factors drove to China to 'up the anti' last week, to the point where the PRC now cannot afford the loss of face that would occur if it stepped back from the situation. Having failed to intimidate Japan into backing down, it would be advantageous to China to bring the row to a swift end before its protests are exposed as little more than diplomatic hot air.
Does this mean that direct action is on the cards? The answer is probably not- both sides have too much to lose to make this a realistic option at the moment. One would expect that the PRC will continue to apply the squeeze on relations between the countries, and attempt to cultivate international pressure on Japan to end its detention of the captain. Yet, despite earlier predictions that the incident would not have a significant fallout on the Sino-Japanese dialogue, it is clear that the events of the last few weeks will not be forgotten easily. The affair has sown further seeds of distrust between the two countries, and the knock-on effect of these could be very significant indeed. In this sense, although the row continues to drag on, the main damage has already been done.