Japan might have blinked first in the increasingly tense diplomatic confrontation with China over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain, who was due to be released on Friday and flown home.

And the Japanese government came under immediate attack at home for giving in to the pressure from China, which was ratcheted up throughout the week.

Yet for Beijing, there is also a risk that its tough approach could backfire as it feeds mounting concern across Asia about the rising power of an economy that recently overtook Japan as the world’s second largest.

The new bout of ill-feeling between Japan and China comes as Chinese ties have begun to sour with other countries in the region. Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, this week said the Diaoyu islands that are disputed by Japan and China were “sacred territory”, an indication of an increasingly bold attitude towards territorial claims.

“There is a lot of concern in the region that China is becoming more assertive and less willing to negotiate and compromise,” says Drew Thompson, a China specialist at the Nixon Center. “So these countries are turning to the US with more regularity.”

Among south-east Asian countries there is growing anxiety about China’s approach to islands in the South China Sea claimed in full or in part by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei.

These rumblings of discontent have given an opportunity for the US to rea ssert itself in Asian diplomacy and security.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, used a regional meeting in Hanoi in July to announce that the US could be a mediator in the dispute – much to the annoyance of Chinese officials – and Barack Obama, US president, was due to hold a meeting with south-east Asian leaders on Friday to discuss the South China Sea issue.

China has also had a series of low-level diplomatic arguments with India during the past 18 months, while Beijing’s refusal to criticise North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March sparked anger in Seoul.

Some analysts see the harder attitude in Beijing as a result of short-term political positioning ahead of a 2012 leadership transition, but others say it reflects a desire among Chinese leaders to turn economic strength into political and diplomatic leverage.

Japan is a case in point of the shifting political tide in Asia. After taking office last year, Japan’s Democratic party-led government sought to improve relations with China – including with a controversial setting-aside of protocol precedent that allowed Xi Jinping, Chinese vice-president, an imperial audience.

However, the harshness of China’s response to the detention of the fishing boat captain is likely to strengthen the argument of those DPJ members – including Seiji Maehara, new foreign minister – who believe that Japan should deepen its alliance with the US while also acquiring greater ability to project military force in defence of its interests.

Japanese prosecutors' decision to release captain Zhan Qixiong also risks reinforcing perceptions of Japan as a relatively passive actor in Asian affairs, dependent on its alliance with the US for security and punching diplomatically well below its still-considerable economic weight.

“It’s undeniable that this will create the image of a Japan that is weak in the face of pressure,” said Yukio Okamoto, a security expert.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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