China-Japan: Playing Against Type

According to Sourabh Gupta, we've all been a bit quick to label China the neighborhood bully when it comes to the recent standoff over a Chinese trawler captain that Japan detained for fishing in coastal waters of the disputed Senkaku Island chain. The reason? The two countries already have in place coastal fisheries agreements that explicitly and wisely decouple fisheries disputes from any larger territorial disputes, for the express purpose of preventing them from triggering the kind of diplomatic incident that ultimately took place. And those agreements clearly give legal jurisdiction over any infractions off of the Senkaku Islands to the flag state of the vessel in question, and not of the coastal power. In other words, under these agreements, Japan was outside of its legal rights in detaining the Chinese captain. Instead, Tokyo should have immediately turned him over to the Chinese authorities, while pressing them to follow up in terms of legal remedies.

The problem for the Chinese is that their handling of the incident played into the anxiety-inducing narrative of a bellicose and bullying Beijing that will take advantage of its position of regional dominance to muscle its weaker neighbors around on any number of unresolved territorial disputes. Inasmuch as this is not what really happened here, it's obviously not very fair, but it's something Beijing needs to take into account in future incidents. Clearly, China would have done well to make its case in a more restrained manner. The question is whether internal dynamics, such as nationalist sentiment and hardline factions among the strategic policymaking circles, allow Beijing to take such a prudent approach.

Meanwhile, this kind of decoupling of commercial and resource issues from territorial claims could serve as a useful model for how to resolve the region's other maritime disputes. But that's going to be considerably more complicated if Beijing can't trust these agreements to be respected.

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