On September 7, Japanese coast guard officials detained the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler after it rammed into two Japanese coast guard ships. The captain of the trawler was detained and faced charges that could have sent him to prison for up to three years. The incident set off a high-profile showdown between Beijing and Tokyo: the Chinese government threatened to withdraw from discussions over the East China Sea gas field and suspend ministerial-level contacts, organized demonstrations outside Japanese diplomatic missions in China, imposed an embargo on the shipment of rare earth metals to Japan, and detained four Japanese citizens for allegedly videotaping military targets in Hebei Province. Japan finally succumbed to the pressure and released the captain in late September.
Many analysts have pointed to the incident as proof that Beijing has adopted a more aggressive stance toward its regional rivals. But Chinese behavior in the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas over the past several decades reveals a longstanding pattern of bullying and outright threats. As China has struggled to expand its maritime boundaries, assert sovereignty over disputed islands and vast maritime resources, and enhance its naval capabilities to counter U.S. Navy dominance in the Pacific, it has never been reluctant to use force or coercion. This long history of aggression suggests that the United States will have to be firm and proactive in countering China's expanding self-proclaimed zone of influence if it hopes to keep Beijing from dominating the coastal seas of the western Pacific.
China has been most aggressive in the South China Sea, where it claims a number of disputed territories. In 1974, taking advantage of Washington's preoccupation with leaving Vietnam, China invaded the Paracel Islands -- which were then under South Vietnamese control -- beginning an illegal occupation that continues today. Over the years, China has increased its military presence on the islands, building a military airfield and an intelligence monitoring facility that can be used for operations in the South China Sea.