Tensions are growing daily over Japan’s arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain following his ship’s collision with Japan Coast Guard vessels in the East China Sea.

Both countries have openly criticized each other over the incident, and the escalating diplomatic spat has led to public protests, the suspension of ministerial and higher-level exchanges, and the cancellation of a concert by pop group SMAP in Shanghai.

At the heart of the problem are a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan has administration of the islands, which it calls the Senkaku Islands, but both Beijing and Taiwan claim sovereignty as well, calling them the Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively. Following are basic questions and answers about the dispute:

Why was the Chinese captain arrested?

A JCG patrol vessel came across a Chinese fishing boat in Japanese-claimed territorial waters on the morning of Sept. 7.

After being warned to leave the area, the boat and JCG patrol ship Yonakuni collided. No details have yet been released as to who or what caused the collision. The Yonakuni then ordered the trawler to stop for inspection, which the Chinese captain refused, according to a JCG representative.

Later that morning, another JCG patrol ship, the Mizuki, was chasing the fishing boat to conduct an onboard inspection near Kuba Island when another collision occurred.

The Chinese captain, Zhan Qixiong, 41, was arrested the next day on suspicion of obstructing the public duties of coast guard personnel.

Japanese authorities are also looking into whether the captain engaged in unlawful fishing.

What is China’s position on the collision?

In 1992, China enacted a territorial waters law that included the islands as part of its territory. Therefore, the application of any Japanese law in the area is unacceptable for Beijing.

From the beginning, the Chinese government has demanded that Japan release the captain, calling the arrest “illegal and invalid.”

“We demand that the Japanese side immediately let the Chinese captain return unconditionally,” Chinese Foreign Ministry representative Ma Zhaoxu said on the ministry’s official website earlier this week. “If the Japanese side clings obstinately to its own course and doubles its mistakes, China will take strong countermeasures, for which Japan shall bear all the consequences.”

What about the fishing boat captain?

The captain is being detained at the Ishigaki branch of the Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office. On Sunday, the Ishigaki Summary Court in Okinawa Prefecture gave prosecutors permission to extend Zhan’s detention for another 10 days, until Sept. 29.

Beijing reacted immediately, suspending ministerial and higher-level exchanges with Japan.

Where are the islands?

The uninhabited islands are in the East China Sea. They occupy an area of only 7 sq. km, spread over what Japan calls Uotsuri, Kuba, Minami Kojima and other small islands about 170 km from both Taiwan and Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture.

The islands are under the administrative control of the Japanese government, which calls them the Senkaku Islands. China and Taiwan have both been claiming sovereignty since the 1970s. They call them the Diaoyu in China and the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan. They are often the source of diplomatic tension.

What is Japan’s view of the dispute?

In 1885, during the Sino-Japanese War, Japan stated that it had conducted surveys that confirmed the islands were uninhabited and “showed no trace of having been under the control of China’s Qing empire,” the Foreign Ministry says on its website. In 1895, the Japanese government officially incorporated the territory as a part of Japan, and the islands became a part of Japan’s southern archipelago, known as the Nansei Shoto. For the next four decades, small numbers of Japanese lived on the islands, building wharves and factories for processing dried bonito. The islets were later deserted in 1940.

After the war, the Nansei Shoto, including Okinawa and the Senkaku Islands, were captured by the United States and controlled under the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Okinawa was later returned to Japan in 1971. However, this agreement only ceded control of the disputed Senkaku Islands and did not directly determine sovereignty, argue China and Taiwan.

“There is no territorial dispute in the East China Sea,” newly appointed Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said. “The Senkaku Islands are an integral part of Japan’s sovereign territory.”

When and why did China and Taiwan begin to claim sovereignty over the islands?

Over the last 75 years, the two governments have held undefined positions on the Senkakus. The islands were handed over in an “unequal treaty” to Japan after China lost the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.

In 1968 the United Nations Economic Commission for the Asia and the Far East reported potential oil reserves in the waters off the Senkakus. Both China and Taiwan officially declared sovereignty over the islands in 1971.

Haven’t similar incidents occurred in Japan’s territorial waters?

Yes. Japan Coast Guard Commandant Hisayasu Suzuki recently told a Diet committee that the JCG has conducted 21 inspections on foreign ships entering Japan’s official territorial waters this year alone.

A similar situation occurred in 2004, when seven Chinese protesters were arrested for landing on one of the islands. The Japanese government, led by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, deported the protesters to China.

China might expect the fishing boat captain to get similar treatment, given the nature of the dispute. But this time, this incident is being dealt with by prosecutors, not politicians.

How is Japan’s security partner, the United States, responding to this incident?

In August, U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley told a news conference that the Japan-U.S. security alliance covers the Senkaku Islands. The treaty obliges the U.S. to defend Japan against an armed attack by another country.

But Crowley also has said that the U.S. has not taken any sides on the issue of sovereignty or the diplomatic row surrounding the collision, urging Japan and China to resolve the issue in a peaceful manner.

“The Senkaku Islands have been under the administrative control of the government of Japan since they were returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa in 1972. Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security states that the treaty applies to the territories under the administration of Japan,” he said in August.

At a separate news conference on Sept. 13, Crowley also said: “On this narrow issue, we hope that would be resolved peacefully through dialogue between China and Japan.

“But the U.S.-Japanese alliance is a cornerstone of security and stability across Asia, and that security and stability benefits Japan.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.