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China and Japan Hit a Diplomatic Deep Freeze Over Arrest of Trawler Captain

President Obama may be doing more Asian diplomacy than he anticipated during Thursday’s meetings at the United Nations General Assembly. He will be talking with the premiers of Japan and China — who at the moment are not talking to each other.

The two countries are in a growing row over Japan’s Sept. 8 arrest of a Chinese trawler captain who allegedly rammed Japanese Coast Guard ships in disputed waters.

That this seemingly small incident has turned into a headline and protest-generating event in both countries demonstrates, according to regional analysts, how tense relations can be between the two Asian powers, even as commercial ties expand into the hundreds of billions of dollars and they become each other’s biggest trading partners.

China recently officially surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economic power and has become increasingly assertive in territorial claims in Asian waters, analysts say. Only a year ago, newly elected Japanese premier Yukio Hatoyama was talking of rearranging his country’s strategic relationship toward China and away from the United States. That idea has faded as fast as Hatoyama’s abortive nine-month premiership.

Most of the tough words at the moment are coming from China. Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in New York for the U.N. sessions and told a gathering of overseas Chinese:

“If Japan acts wilfully despite advice to the contrary, China will take further actions and Japan must accept full responsibility for all the severe consequences,” Wen said, according to Reuters.

Japanese public statements have been more conciliatory. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengkoku urged high level talks, including on strategic matters.

The question of whether this dispute will descend into another burst of nationalism and replaying of grievances going back to World War II, as still occurs periodically between the two, draws different answers from analysts.

Longtime China watcher Robert Sutter, now a visiting professor at Georgetown University, thinks both countries will try to find a way out of the dispute because both governments have far more important domestic and international issues on their plates. For China, said Sutter, is a looming change of leadership that will encompass tens of thousands of party cadre and government jobs.

But on the underlying territorial issues, Sutter warned that the Japanese can be as tough as the Chinese asserting their claims. As is typical in these disputes, the two islands in question have different names — Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai in Chinese.

Ayako Doi, a veteran Japan analyst and now an associate fellow at the Asia Society, called the dispute “ominous.” Recently, and until now, China had quickly resolved minor flare-ups. But it is taking a much harder line on this one, along with its generally more assertive stance not only in the East China Sea but also the South China Sea. Doi also noted that efforts to reach a deal on natural gas drilling in the disputed waters have not progressed beyond preliminary talks.

Analysts are looking to Sept. 29 as the next key date, when Japanese prosecutors make their next decision on the fate of the Chinese trawler captain. One possible way out, Doi suggested, is for Japan to indict, but then release, the captain.

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