It is not often that a trawling accident leads to a diplomatic row. But that is what happened on 7 September when a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol boats near an island chain in the East China Sea that Japan controls, but China claims.
The Chinese boat captain was released last week, but the row is not over. Both China and Japan now say it is up to the other party to make up and fix ties. That will take time.
There is more here than mere bickering over a boat collision. The fact is that China’s neighbours, from Japan in the east to India in the west, are a deeply worried lot today. Of late, Beijing has acquired an assertiveness that is at odds with its claim to a “peaceful rise” as a global power. It has had border clashes with Japan and India in recent months. It has a long-running dispute over the ownership of hydrocarbon-rich island chains with Vietnam and other countries in South-East Asia. It has claimed that the South China Sea is one of the regions of its “core national interests”, the others being Taiwan and Tibet. In diplomatic terms, these are red rags to other countries.
These events have spurred speculation, journalistic and scholarly, as to why Beijing is provoking its neighbours. The much bigger role for the brass of the People’s Liberation Army, an impending leadership change and the rising tide of nationalism, fuelled in part by the Chinese Communist Party, have all been held as reasons for its new-found aggression.
So far, save the incident with Japan, all countries involved have responded to China in a mature way. That is how it should be. But what is also changing, and rightly so, is how countries at the receiving end of Beijing’s courtesy deal with each other. So long as China was perceived as a peaceful rising power, the effort was, to use the language of international relations scholars, to “bandwagon” with it. Now that has changed to attempts at “balancing” China. Stephen Walt, a professor of political science at Harvard University, had argued recently that aggressive Chinese behaviour could “tip” countries in a balancing direction. That seems to be happening, as of now. It is important for India, often considered a bulwark against China, to pursue a higher level of politico-military cooperation with Vietnam and Japan more seriously than it has so far. It will be in India’s security interests, and those of its friends, to do so.
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