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Japan and the East China Sea Dispute

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
Summer 2012


The September 2010 confrontation between Japan and China over a Chinese fishing trawler's provocations in the waters of the Senkaku Islands demonstrated how easily seemingly small incidents can spiral into major diplomatic confrontations. Japan and China have had similar tensions over this territorial dispute in the past, but none have escalated so intensely. The Japanese arrest of the captain and his extended detention prompted a strong reaction in China. Japanese nationals in China were arrested for illicit behavior near Chinese military bases, and a reported embargo of Chinese shipments of rare earth metals destined for Japanese ports, only exacerbated the tensions. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Senkaku Islands fell under the protection of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. The crisis blossomed into a major security challenge not only for Tokyo but for Washington as well.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher, ORBIS, the quarterly journal of world affairs by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. For more information, please visit

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