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Japan has suffered a diplomatic humiliation by succumbing to China’s demand for the release of a Chinese fishing boat captain who was arrested for operating in Japanese territorial waters and for ramming his boat into Japanese Coast Guard patrol ships.

The incident occurred on Sept. 7 when the Coast Guard spotted the Chinese trawler near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Its 41-year-old captain rammed his ship against two patrol boats in an apparent attempt to escape. The ship was towed to a nearby Japanese port with the captain and 14 other crewmen on board. Beijing immediately lodged a stern protest, claiming sovereignty over the islands.

Although Japan returned the fishing boat and its crew to China shortly afterward, the captain remained in custody and Beijing resorted to a series of tactics in retaliation during the next few days, such as publicly accusing Japan of resorting to violence, summoning Ambassador Uichiro Niwa to Beijing to the Chinese Foreign Ministry a number of times and calling off a visit to Japan by about 10,000 Chinese tourists.

After a Japanese court of law accepted the prosecutors’ request to detain the caption for another 10 days until Sept. 29, China escalated its retaliatory actions by suspending all Cabinet-level interchanges with Japan that had already been scheduled and denying a planned visit to the Shanghai Expo by a Japanese pop group. In a speech before a Chinese community in New York on Sept. 21, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged to take further retaliation against Japan if the captain was not released and declared that Tokyo would be held responsible for all consequences. It is rare for a head of government to make such a threat publicly.

Indeed, Beijing suspended exports to Japan of rare earth metals, indispensable for the production of hybrid automobiles and other high-tech products. This was nothing short of an economic sanction since Japanese industry depends on China for 90 percent of its requirements for such materials. China also detained four Japanese employees of Fujita Corp. in Hebei Province (the last of whom was not released until Saturday).

All these actions taken by Beijing led the Japanese prosecutors on the afternoon of Sept. 24 to release the captain of the Chinese fishing boat without indictment. Officially, the release was decided on solely by the prosecutors.

The handling of the incident has proved to the world how inept Japanese politicians are when it comes to facing diplomatic problems. But the incident has cast an even more serious question of why China has taken such a tough stand against Japan. The answer seems to lie in Beijing’s apparent pursuit of policies patterned after the “Big Stick” diplomacy initiated in the early 20th century by the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt.

Close to becoming the second most powerful nation, both economically and militarily, China has been building naval bases in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan under the pretext of helping construct port facilities. China is also determined to take control of the South China Sea, where it is engaged in territorial disputes over islands like the Paracels and Spratlys with Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.

A typical pattern followed by Beijing is to send naval vessels to catch Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats operating in the waters near these disputed islands, and establish a de facto control over them. The Chinese leadership seems to be fully aware that Big Stick diplomacy works most effectively against weaker nations. China now seeks to expand its sphere of influence not only in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea.

The Chinese territorial claim over the Senkaku Islands, which is part of Okinawa Prefecture, was emphatically stated by the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper. It asserted on Sept. 19 that in the early 19th century the Japanese government snatched Okinawa from the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China at the time, and that Tokyo today is suppressing the Okinawans’ aspirations for independence.

The Chinese leaders may have started to think that they are close to restoring the power and prosperity attained by the Qing Dynasty, given China’s economic and military power. To maintain the living standards of its 1.3 billion people, China has to secure resources. It sometimes dares to invade lands and territorial waters of other countries.

Toward that end, China is waging wars on three fronts. One is to build up domestic and international public opinion that is supportive of China. The second is psychological warfare aimed at lowering the morale of the military of countries confronting China. The third is to push the legal justification of Beijing’s territorial claims. In the fishing boat incident, Japan was soundly defeated, at least from a psychological perspective.

In stark contrast with the rising nationalism in China, there is a conspicuous lack of nationalism in Japan, as evidenced by the fact that when a legislative bill to formally institute the Japanese national flag and anthem was put to vote in the Lower House in 1999, negative votes were cast by 46 legislators, including three incumbent Cabinet members: Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and Banri Kaieda, minister in charge of economic and fiscal affairs.

For more than six decades since the end of World War II, the Japanese people have believed in a statement in the preamble of the Constitution: “We have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world.” The Japanese are now starting to realize that the notion that Japan is the sole dangerous country in the region, and is surrounded by peace-loving neighbors, is false.

It has taken a horrendous length of time for the Japanese to come to realize this ungrounded fiction. Maybe the Japanese should feel grateful to the Chinese for offering the opportunity to return to a more normal and realistic way of thinking because of the fishing boat incident.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.