China–Japan maritime arrests: to care or not to care?

After China’s stern reaction last year to the arrest of a Chinese sailor who rammed Japanese ships near islands disputed by the two countries, the world media has braced itself for another round of “tensions” following a new arrest.

The fact that both Japanese and Chinese authorities are calling the incident a “regular fisheries case” is reassuring. This arrest, however, was different.

The arrest last year took place near the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China that have been a long-standing point of contention between the two countries. Activists in both countries have mobilized to claim sovereignty. To make things more complicated, Taiwanese protesters have also staked claims.

This year’s incident took place in a far less sensitive area, near the Gotō Islands (or 五島). No one disputes these islands to my knowledge, and they are far closer to Japan’s larger islands, off the coast near Nagasaki.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, on the other hand, are closer to Taiwan than to the major Japanese islands, and they have been disputed for decades.

In the map below, Senkaku/Diaoyu is indicated with a red marker:


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This map Gotō is indicated:


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We’re left with media reports that generally don’t bother with the fact that the newer arrest took place in an undisputed territory very near Japan’s core area whereas the first took place near a hotly disputed territory far closer to the Chinese mainland or Taiwan than to most of Japan’s population.

It would seem to signify stability (or signify nothing) that both governments agree to follow ordinary law about this particular encounter. As far as I can tell, there is nothing odd here; this should be a routine case. It would be a story if and only if there was a hot-headed reaction.

This comes down to expectations. The people who think this non-event is a story are working with the assumption that either China would react “irrationally” or that enough people would expect a disproportionate response that covering the lack of it would be news.

That expectation of hotheadedness despite the material difference of circumstances strikes me as fairly well irrational on its own. Notice that the sources of the strange speculative stories are places like AFP and BBC, not Xinhua or Yomiuri. That both governments are settled with this, and no noticeable public outcry has resulted, should be signs that the foreign press is trolling the waters of conflict instead of covering life as it actually is.

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