The New York Times described the Japanese government's return of the Chinese fishing boat captain last Friday as "a humiliating retreat" and "a significant victory to Chinese leaders." After a two-week standoff, the Japanese government opted not to prosecute Zhan Qixiong for refusing an order to leave Japanese waters and for ramming two Japanese coast guard vessels. It would seem that Chinese diplomatic bluster, the refusal to allow a cargo ship with rare earth metals to sail to Japan, and the capture of four Japanese citizens in China on allegations of espionage was enough to cause Japanese policymakers to buckle. And even though Zhan is home, China is not satisfied. It has demanded from Japan an apology. Japan has refused and has responded with its own demand for compensation to repair its coast guard vessels.
China got its man back. But the greater Japan's supposed humiliation, the greater the defeat for China and its strategic interests in the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is now being pilloried inside Japan for displaying weakness. Had Kan's LDP critics been in office, the outcome of this affair would very likely have been the same. But that doesn't matter. The political incentives in Japan now favor a harder line against China the next time another such incursion occurs, which is very likely.
Second, other countries in the region have not taken kindly to China's recent elevation of its claims over the South China Sea to the level of "core interest." China's high-decibel screeching at Japan only reinforces the impression among policymakers in the region that China might now be turning into everyone's problem. And if these countries view China as a problem, a collective response may follow -- the last thing China should want.
The fishing boat incident in the Senkakus does not rise to the level of Munich 1938. But the incident's outcome may be one of the last accommodations China gets before policymakers in the region begin contemplating the need for containment.