Mining the Tension between Tokyo and Beijing

Relations between China and Japan are slowly coming to a boil since a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coast guard ships two weeks ago near islands claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan continues to hold the captain of the fishing crew (it also detained the crew, but has since released them). Now, as Washington starts to get involved, the mainstream media and the blogosphere are taking notice in a big way.

Thursday's New York Times and Wall Street Journal each run multiple stories related to the saga, and the Washington Post posted an online piece this morning (yeah, they're a little late to the party, but they've been bogged down with a certain Mr. Woodward). The latest broadside in the standoff, as the Times and the Post recount here and here, happened Thursday morning as experts said China is halting the shipment of "rare earth elements" (something China has a virtual monopoly on, mining 93 percent of the world's supply) to Japan, which the Japanese use in, among other things, their hybrid cars. And the Journal mentions that Chinese citizens are being discouraged from traveling to Japan.

But the Times and the Journal also have lengthy pieces on "what it all means" for America (writing for TNI online, John Lee thinks the era of China's "smile diplomacy" might be over, and Jacob Heilbrunn says Beijing's recent prickliness on this and a number of other issues presents an opportunity for Washington to take advantage). The papers detail several disputes (the Spratlys, Paracels, and Senkakus, etc.), that have sent U.S. allies in the region scurrying to secure better military relations and help mediating disputes from Washington (that's right, we just might be seeing balancing over bandwagoning again). Unfortunately (for the United States), David Sanger also reports that the change in Beijing's demeanor has taken the Obama administration completely by surprise.

Heilbrunn, Angry Bear, Legal Insurrection, Naked Capitalism and the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal note that the rare metals ban could (and in their view should) lead to the reopening of America's own rare metals mine at Mountain Pass, California, which would threaten China's pseudo-monopoly. Peter Ennis reports that Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, has tried to ratchet-down tensions with Beijing (such as floating a meeting of the minds in New York between Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the UN General Assembly sidelines this week), but has been rebuffed, only giving "hot-heads" more ammunition. And Dan Drezner thinks China is just playing into America's hands and wonders if its leaders are not quite as quick as Tom Friedman seems to think.