This post summarizes one of nine case studies included in CSIS’s new report, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The full case study is also available for download here. (Principal case study researcher: Jake Douglas)
On September 7, 2010, three Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol ships arrived at the disputed Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but China and Taiwan also claim. The JCG was responding to a recent spike in Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen nearby. Indeed, that week alone up to 30 vessels were sighted within the Senkakus’ 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, with perhaps hundreds more plying the waters beyond. Although Japanese diplomats agreed quietly in 1975 and explicitly in 1997 not to interfere with Chinese fishing around the islets, local authorities had long chased foreign ships away from the Senkakus’ rich fisheries.
The morning of September 7, the JCG closed in on a group of Chinese trawlers and ordered them to leave the area. Most complied immediately, but one ship—the Minjinyu 5179—refused to budge. When a Japanese cutter moved to inspect and board it, the Chinese ship suddenly rammed into the JCG vessel’s port side and fled. When the coast guard caught up with the Minjinyu a few minutes later, it smashed into a second patrol vessel and bolted again. Japanese officers finally managed to halt the trawler that afternoon. To their surprise, they found 15 ordinary fishermen on board but no patriotic activists or maritime militia. In fact, the captain was likely drunk.
The Chinese skipper was arrested the next day for “obstructing [the JCG’s] public duties,” and the 14 other crew members were detained as “witnesses.” The captain’s charge carried a possible three-year prison sentence. By initiating these legal proceedings, Japan was responding more forcefully than it had in the past. Chinese nationalists made several attempted landings on the islands in the 1990s and early 2000s, but eventually the two governments made a tacit pact for managing the problem in 2004. In return for Beijing restraining activists from sailing to the Senkakus, Tokyo promised not to formally arrest any Chinese citizens who made it there.
In Tokyo, concern about the severity of the collision led Japanese leaders to take a harder stance. Minister of Transport Seiji Maehara ordered the captain to be put in police custody and resolved to “persist with a resolute attitude.” Prime Minister Naoto Kan was more skeptical, but he chose not to overturn the original directive. Reportedly, Beijing intended to respond to the issue “calmly” until Tokyo chose to treat it like a matter of Japanese domestic law rather than a diplomatic incident. The White House privately concluded that its ally’s approach was “maladroit,” and Washington therefore shied away from involvement.
Chinese and Japanese diplomats began holding regular meetings (sometimes several a day) to protest each other’s actions. China demanded its fishermen’s unconditional release. When Tokyo demurred, Beijing announced it had dispatched a Fisheries Law Enforcement Command vessel to the waters of the Senkaku Islands. This patrol was just the first of many. Except for an isolated incident in 2008, China had not deployed any government ships to the islands since the 1970s. Yet Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) now established a regular presence—peaking in the weeks after the collision before tapering off.
Chinese MLE Patrols Near the Senkakus
At the same time, Chinese officials prevented several groups of citizen activists from organizing large-scale protests or sailing to the islands. China’s reaction to the arrest was quite assertive diplomatically and at sea. Nevertheless, this deliberate restraint suggests Beijing still hoped to avoid too much escalation or instability at home.
A local Japanese court approved the captain’s detention on September 10. As “part of its response,” the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) then declared the “suspension” of a bilateral dialogue on joint oil and gas development in the East China Sea. Victim to tensions over the Senkakus, these negotiations have never been revived.
Japanese police finished questioning the other Chinese crew members and released them on September 13. But on September 19, the court extended the skipper’s detention by another ten days, at which point the prosecution would have to decide whether to pursue a trial. Beijing was irate. The MFA announced the cancelation of at least 20 Sino-Japanese political, economic, and cultural exchanges and indicated that Chinese tourism would also slow down.
U.S., Chinese, and Japanese leaders soon traveled to New York for the UN General Assembly. By this time, Japan’s resolve had weakened considerably. On September 21, Tokyo proposed that Prime Minister Kan and Premier Wen Jiabao hold direct talks on the matter, but Beijing rejected the idea out of hand. U.S. officials finally intervened on September 23. They met separately with Japanese and Chinese counterparts to “explore modalities to resolve the situation.” During these discussions, the United States “unequivocally” assured Japan that their bilateral security treaty covered the Senkakus. In an apparent quid pro quo, Prime Minister Kan informed President Barack Obama later the same day that the Chinese captain would be released. In many ways, this signaled the beginning of the end of the crisis.
Nevertheless, reports emerged that China had begun enforcing an “embargo” on its exports of rare earth metals (REMs) to Japan. At that time China accounted for 97 percent of the world’s production of rare earths, half of which Japan imported for further processing and manufacturing. Some industry experts claimed China was unofficially holding up shipments until Tokyo released the captain. Whatever the truth, Beijing repeatedly denied accusations of coercive intent. Other analysts observed that China actually announced drastic reductions months beforehand as part of a long-planned shift toward protectionism and sustainable development.
Japanese Actual Imports of Rare Earths from China
China’s Declared REM Export Quotas (metric tons)
On September 24, the regional Japanese prosecutor’s office announced the release of the Chinese captain. Leaders in Tokyo mostly dismissed charges that they pressured local authorities into the decision. The prosecution itself, however, unambiguously cited “the impact on… Japan-China relations” as their rationale. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan quickly came under fire from Western media and domestically from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (especially Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara) for this “humiliating retreat.”
Although often overshadowed by the 2012 nationalization crisis, this earlier 2010 incident laid the foundation for heightened brinkmanship in the East China Sea. It therefore holds a few lessons for managing tensions in maritime Asia:
- First, Japan and China each perceived the other as unilaterally escalating the dispute. Tokyo was concerned by the trawler’s belligerence and the recent sharp increase in foreign fishermen. Beijing felt provoked by Japan’s arrest as well as interference with Chinese civilian fishing.
- Second, the drop in rare earth exports may have been a case of economic coercion, but China insists that export cuts were the result of unrelated changes in its industrial policy. A third possibility is that preplanned reductions were accelerated following the outbreak of tensions. On the other hand, Beijing openly admitted holding oil and gas talks hostage to the dispute.
- Third, Chinese leaders succeeded tactically in gaining the captain’s release, but paid a major strategic price. The crisis created opportunities for a revitalized U.S.-Japan alliance and set the foundation for future crises with Tokyo.
For more articles in this series, please visit our Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia Report page.