Japan has decided to free the Chinese fishing trawler captain it has held amidst Chinese protests for over two weeks. As Xinhua reported on Friday afternoon Beijing-time, the Chinese government is planning to bring its citizen home by a special chartered flight- presumably to a hero's welcome. According to the BBC, Japanese prosecutors found no deliberate premeditated intention by the captain to ram the two Japanese coast guard boats which intercepted him in the East China Sea, and made the decision to send him home rather than strain Sino-Japanese relations further.
The last week has seen Chinese denunciations of the captain's arrest become increasingly vocal, with Premier Wen Jiabao himself calling for his release during a visit to the United Nations in New York. To many, Japan's move to resolve the crisis will look like Tokyo caving in to increased pressure from the Chinese government. However, as this blog mentioned in a previous post, with Japan's economy so closely tied to China's, the former had the potential to lose much more in the crisis than just pride. In this sense, Japan has taken the practical way out. Nonetheless, by making the release, Tokyo looks weak- an image that is likely to stay with it for the foreseeable future. This was always going to be a consequence ever since the row escalated from a simple breach of borders incident to one of national pride. Unfortunately for the Japanese government, it has played the diplomatic game and lost. Indeed, Mariko Sanchanta has been asking (over at the Wall Street Journal's China Realtime Report blog) "Did Japan Cave to China Too Soon?" As she suggests, while Japan's government may have taken the best decision economically, nobody quite knows the effect the move will have on the governing Democratic Party of Japan's poll ratings. If the reaction of Japanese netizens is anything to go by, they're in for a drop.
All this said, as the BBC's Roland Buerk points out, China has not emerged from the affair a real winner either. In his words, “the events of this month have cast a chill over its neighbours just as China hopes to take on a larger global role.” This principle accords with the analysis of Joshua Kurlantzick writing on the Asia Unbound blog, who reckons that the PRC tends to underestimate its Asian neighbours. The controversy over the Diaoyu Islands has significantly harmed its international image at a time when China is trying to play a more high-profile role in international diplomacy (e.g. its attempts to re-start the Korean Peninsula talks). It may take a long time for the spectre of the last two weeks to cease to hover over Asian affairs.
Despite the captain's release, tensions between China and Japan may not be able to ease just yet. Although details are still sketchy, Xinhua was reporting last night that the authorities in Hebei province have begun investigations into four Japanese citizens who are alleged to have entered a restricted military zone and proceeded to film military targets. Whether or not this Chinese action is connected with recent events is unclear, although the timing of the incident (about a day before Xinhua announced the captain's release) suggests that China may have looked to solve the problem through an exchange of prisoners. Whether or not the Hebei security services continue their investigation will reveal the possible motives for the arrests- as with so many aspects of Chinese affairs, time alone will tell.