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The Chinese fishing boat captain who humbled the Japanese

In this Sept. 8, 2010 photo, a Chinese fishing boat, left, which was involved in a collision near disputed islands, arrives at a port on Ishigaki island, Okinawa prefecture, southwestern Japan. Japanese prosecutors decided Friday, Sept. 24, 2010, to release the captain of the Chinese fishing boat, whose detention raised tensions between the Asian neighbors. Beijing has angrily demanded that the captain be released and cut off ministerial-level talks with Japan as relations between the two countries spiraled to their worst level in years.

AP Photo/Kyodo News/AP Photo/Kyodo News

If Japan's powers-that-be had just put Zhan Qixiong on the next vessel back to China the day he rammed his fishing trawler into two Japanese coast guard boats, neighbours wouldn't be whispering about Tokyo's diplomatic humbling at the hands of Beijing.

Japan on Saturday morning released the Chinese fishing boat captain following intense pressure from China. In a region where honour matters, Japan lost face.

As it turned out Japanese authorities didn't have the foresight to rid themselves of the diplomatic time bomb they seized Sept. 7 in disputed waters south of Okinawa. And they didn't have the stomach for what came next.

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Beijing, anxious to show Japan and the region that they now set the rules in East Asia, came out swinging.

The Japanese ambassador to Beijing was called on the carpet five times, government-to-government links were severed and Chinese tourists were encouraged to avoid visiting their neighbour. A visit by 1,000 Japanese schoolchildren to Shanghai Expo was cancelled and a Japanese boy band was told to stay away.

As the dispute passed the two-week mark, China's leaders got serious. First, a rumour was allowed to spread that Beijing had halted the export to Japan of rare earths minerals that are critical in the production of everything from mobile phones to Toyota's prized Prius hybrid automobile. Then, on Thursday, four Japanese nationals were arrested on transparently trumped-up charges.

At the UN in New York, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao ominously warned "the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences that arise" if Mr. Zhan were not immediately released.

Throughout the diplomatic offensive, Japan - the dominant power in East Asia as long as China's rulers were tearing their own country to shreds - stood unmoving in its corner, a stunned prizefighter that hadn't heard the opening bell. After 17 days of insisting it had the right to try Mr. Zhan in its domestic courts, Tokyo threw in the towel on Friday, surrendering unconditionally to bring an end to the worst dispute between the two Asian giants in years.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported that a chartered plane had been sent to Japan to bring Mr. Zhan home. He is already being treated as a national hero in China, the fishing boat captain who took on the hated Japanese and won.

It was unclear whether Mr. Zhan's release would affect the fates of the four Japanese, employees of the construction firm Fujita Corporation, who were detained in Hebei province on suspicion of filming in a restricted military area.

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What Beijing gained in the showdown - de facto Japanese recognition of its claim to the Japanese-controlled chain of uninhabited islands that are known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan - was in some ways less significant than what Tokyo lost. (Japan had previously insisted there was no dispute over who owned the atoll, the waters around which are believed to contain as much as seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas and upward of 100 billion barrels of oil.)

Where China is a country triumphantly on the rise - recently leapfrogging Japan to become the world's second-largest economy - Tokyo is in a two-decade tumble. As the dispute spread, Beijing held most of the best cards: Tokyo could ill-afford a spreading conflict with its largest trading partner.

Still, it was a weak hand poorly played. "I admit that Japan has to come to terms with China's ever-growing clout some way or another," said Yuki Asaba, associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in western Japan. "[But]the decision today sent a wrong, wrong and wrong message both domestically and internationally ... "

Prof. Asaba said Japan's climbdown would affect its claims in other territorial squabbles with China, South Korea and Russia. Just as easily, Beijing's victory over Tokyo could make China's smaller neighbours, such as Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, more nervous about standing up to China in their own disputes with Beijing over their competing claims to the resource-rich South China Sea.

In a region where honour matters, China's other neighbours are wondering when it might be their turn to make the same bow toward Beijing.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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