After its Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler in waters claimed by Tokyo, Japan surprised the world by showing uncharacteristic steadfastness in standing up to Chinese pressure. Indeed, despite increasingly bellicose Chinese rhetoric and threats, Tokyo valiantly stood its ground. And the fact that the left-of-center DPJ-led government was the purveyor of this newfound strength made Japan’s stance all the more impressive.

Yet, as suddenly as the conflict arose, it was ended by Japanese capitulation. It remains unclear whether local Japanese prosecutors acted unilaterally in releasing the Chinese ship captain or at the behest of the central government in Tokyo. But, it makes no difference. The signal has been sent and it is a dangerous one for the future of Asian peace and stability. Tokyo’s surrender to Chinese pressure will have negative ramifications for Japan, the United States, and the region.

Catalyst for Confrontation
The catalyst for the Chinese-Japanese imbroglio was the September 8 arrest of a Chinese crew after the ship rammed a Japanese coast guard cutter. Underlying the tactical law enforcement issue was a long-standing territorial dispute over the sovereignty of islets in an energy-rich region as well as historical animosities brought on by Japanese wartime aggression.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had warned Japan that it would face “severe consequences” if it did not immediately release the crew. Wen refused to meet with Prime Minister Kan during U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York this week. Beijing also canceled a senior legislative visit to Tokyo, postponed bilateral negotiations for a treaty on jointly developing natural gas reserves in the East China Sea, and reportedly ceased exports to Japan of critical rare earth minerals.

The Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Okinawa said it would release the Chinese skipper “in light of the incident’s potential impact on future ties with Beijing.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told reporters that the captain’s release was decided independently by prosecutors, denying any influence by the central government.

U.S. Affirms Vow to Defend Japan
Although Washington has refrained from taking a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, the 1960 bilateral defense treaty obligates the United States to defend Japan, including “the territories under the administration of Japan,” which the U.S. has long held includes the Senkakus.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on September 23 that the United States “would fulfill our alliance responsibility” if the conflict escalated. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, “Obviously we’re very, very strongly in support of our ally in that region, Japan.”

Jeff Bader, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, reaffirmed that “the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers all areas administered by Japan, and since the reversion of Okinawa [from] the U.S. to Japan in 1972, the Senkaku Islands have been administered by Japan.”

On August 16, Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the State Department, stated that“the Senkaku Islands are under the administrative control of the Government of Japan. Article 5 states that the treaty applies to the territories under the administrative of Japan. So that if you ask today would the treaty apply to the Senkaku Islands, the answer is yes.”

Japan Was Firm…Until it Wasn’t
One factor leading to the initial strong response by Prime Minister Naoto Kan may have been the DPJ party election. Kan’s opponent Ichiro Ozawa had advocated a rebalancing of Japanese foreign policy away from the United States and toward stronger relations with China. Shortly before the DPJ assumed power in September 2009, Ozawa advocated “Japan-China relations should be as close as Japan-U.S. relations to form triangular relations with two equal sides.”

Ozawa’s advocacy for downplaying Japan’s alliance with Washington in favor of Japan aligning its security requirements more with the United Nations, as well as his description of Americans as “simple-minded,” were deemed by the electorate to be out-of-touch with growing concerns over Chinese belligerency. The DPJ initially sought to redefine its security relationship with Washington but reversed itself after a belated epiphany of the need for the alliance following North Korean and Chinese provocations.

Kan may have sought to distinguish himself from Ozawa by adopting a strong response to Beijing’s bellicose actions following the arrest of the Chinese ship captain. The Japanese populace, though concerned over the risk of escalation, was supportive of affirming Tokyo’s sovereignty over the Senkakus.

The recent selection of conservative Seiji Maehara as Japan’s foreign minister appeared to indicate a continued strong Japanese policy on the issue. Maehara is from the conservative faction of the DPJ and has advocated a continued strong alliance with the United States while warning of the potential dangers of a rising China. In a 2005 speech, made while president of the DPJ, Maehara identified China’s modernization of its military power brought on by a growth rate of more than 10 percent in military spending for nearly 20 years as “a realistic threat.”

Japan’s Erratic Security Policies
The DPJ has had a troubled tenure since it was elected last August. After initially demanding an “equal alliance” with the United States and the departure of a U.S. Marine Corps air unit from Okinawa, the DPJ reversed course once it understood political and security realities in the region. Prime Minister Kan is striving to repair Tokyo’s strained relations with Washington but has been unable to deliver on repeated DPJ promises to abide by an existing bilateral agreement on the redeployment of U.S. military forces in Japan.

The Obama Administration was correct in strongly supporting its Japanese ally by declaring it was covered by the 1960 defense treaty as well as its earlier insistence that the DPJ abide by the force redeployment accord. Washington must continue to strengthen its alliances with both Japan and South Korea and press both allies to transform the security relationships to address regional and global threats. This will be more difficult in light of the Japanese decision to kowtow to Chinese pressure, since Beijing will be encouraged to continue its provocative behavior.