The consequences of Tuesday’s collisions between a Chinese fishing boat, the Minjinyu 5179, and two Japanese coast guard patrol vessels in disputed waters in the East China Sea are threatening to get out of hand. The captain of the Chinese trawler, Zhan Qixiong, has been handed over to Japanese prosecutors who will decide if he is to face charges of illegal fishing in Japanese waters. Increasingly strong diplomatic protests are flying back and forth, or at least from west to east. Beijing has demanded the release of the trawler and its crew, says that Tokyo can’t apply Japanese law in Chinese territory and that their broader relationship will be at risk it does.
The incidents, which occurred separately less than an hour apart, took place off the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and which are claimed by both countries and also Taiwan, though controlled by Japan. This is not the first time the uninhabited islands have caused conflict between the two countries. Japan has repeatedly complained to China about Chinese trawlers and research ships entering what it says are its waters, while China has complained about interceptions of Chinese fishing trawlers, of which, Japanese coast guard officials say, there has been a noticeable increase off the islands since mid-August.
China is becoming more assertive about what it sees as its territorial rights in the western Pacific, including in the disputed areas of the South China Sea as well as in the East China Sea, where China’s growing naval might is unsettling to Japan, even as economic relations between the two countries have been warming in recent years after what has been a chilly period. One question now is whether the fishing trawler incident will affect talks due later this month over the contentious joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea.