China and Japan are in the middle of a heated diplomatic squabble. Japan is holding the captain of a Chinese fishing boat, claiming the boat rammed one of their naval vessel off the coast of one of several uninhabited, Japanese-controlled islands. China, reports The New York Times' Ian Johnson,

is incensed that Japan would apply its laws to Chinese nationals and argues that the issue is one for diplomacy, not the legal system. Known as Senkaku in Japanese or Diaoyu in Chinese, the islands [off of which the incident occurred] have been in dispute for decades, but Japan has mostly turned back Chinese vessels that approach too closely.

Unless you're a regional expert, you may be wondering what exactly is going on. Luckily, plenty of regional experts, as well as an American editorial board or two, explain why the incident touched off an international row.

  • This Has Happened Before These islands "have triggered conflicts between Beijing and Tokyo before," writes UC Irvine history professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom. "This is also not first time relations between China and a major trading partner have been strained by a collision" (he reminds readers of a Chinese and American jet collision in 2001). Unfortunately, "things heated up last week due to the impending arrival of the 79th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, which occurred on September 18, 1931, and there were online calls for mass protests [in China] to be held on that politically charged date." The Chinese and Japanese governments both want to appease nationalist fervor, while "maintaining relations with a major trading partner."
  • 'A Pawn in a Test of Wills,' The Christian Science Monitor calls the fishing captain. "By proxy," the U.S. is involved in this battle, too. "China seeks to displace the US as the longtime guardian of Asia's peace--and to keep Japan in line as well." This is merely the latest incident in an ongoing struggle. Japan's treatment of the captain as "a domestic legal case ... particularly irked Beijing," but Japan may have been emboldened by the US's "new willingness to confront China's belligerent actions toward other Asian nations." A few additional points:
It remains unclear whether China sought this confrontation by encouraging more Chinese boats to fish off the disputed islands. Japan's charge that Zhan deliberately rammed his boat into the Japanese ship has helped fuel such speculation. ... What may ultimately help resolve this issue is the fact that China--not the US--is now Japan's biggest trading partner. ... Japan plans to indicate by Sept. 29 whether it will indict Zhan. Until then, both countries may further posture to signal their future intentions about their role in Asia.
  • The Territorial Aspect: The Islands The island chain extending south of Japan is a tricky area, writes Asia Cable commentator Todd Crowell at Real Clear World. For starters, the "gap in this island chain between Okinawa and the Japanese island of Miyako known as the Miyako Channel ... is becoming one of the most sensitive maritime flashpoints in the world," because it "is the principal gateway through which the Chinese navy can pass through on its way to open sea." In addition, "Japan is awakening to the fact that its extreme southern flank is basically undefended and open to invasion." Thus this incident coincides with a meaningful strategic shift: "In December, the Japanese self defense forces will hold their first ever maneuvers simulating the recapture of remote islands from an occupier."
  • The Natural Consequence of Age-Old Imperial Strategizing  Feng Zhaokui, resesarcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies, run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also focuses on the territorial nature of this dispute in his piece for China Daily. "The Diaoyu Islands dispute was a disruptive mine planted by the United States into Sino-Japanese relations nearly four decades ago," he argues.
When the US decided to return the occupied Okinawa to Japan in 1972, the Diaoyu Islands and adjacent islets, which belong to China, were also handed over to Tokyo. In so doing, the US wanted to prevent China and Japan from getting too close and bring ties between the two countries under its control. ... Both China and Japan can share abundant natural resources in the East China Sea, extricate themselves from the long-standing shackles of territorial disputes as soon as possible and convert potential resources in this area into wealth to realize a win-win result.