China Flexes Lawfare Muscles Against Japan


China Flexes Lawfare Muscles Against Japan

October 8, 2010

n June 2010, Raul Pedrozo, associate professor of International Law in the U.S. Naval War College’s International Law Department, stated that “China is currently attempting to fabricate an incident between a commercial vessel, preferably a fishing vessel, and a US Special Mission Ship as part of its lawfare campaign in order to bolster its claim in the eyes of the international community that US military activities are interfering with China’s legitimate resource rights” in the South China Sea.[1]

Professor Pedrozo may have been prescient, except that it was Japan that ultimately served as China’s target. After a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard patrol boats off the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Japan detained the vessel’s captain, setting off what has been called the “most serious dispute between China and Japan in recent years.”[2] In addition to the overarching sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the area at issue, the two nations also clash over China’s exploration for natural gas in the disputed territory.[3]

China’s response to Japan included preemptively delegitimizing any Japanese trial of the captain by declaring that “[a]ny so-called judicial procedures conducted by Japan against the Chinese captain are illegal and invalid.”[4] Such a statement is arguably part of China’s “lawfare campaign.”[5] Prior to the release, China used traditional political actions against Japan, as it canceled cultural exchanges and energy-development talks, rejected a proposed summit meeting, and threatened “further action” against Japan if China’s demands for the captain’s release were not met.[6]

China’s cavalier rejection of potential Japanese legal action against the captain as mere “interference” appears to be aimed at delegitimizing Japan as a sovereign nation capable of legitimate legal actions against another nation state. China wanted to thwart any Japanese prosecution of this captain, and its tactics appear to have worked—Japan released the captain and pursued no legal action. In turn, this furthers China’s overall goals of disputing the sovereignty of this territory. Such an assertion and its legal consequences exemplify lawfare, and China’s strategic purpose in asserting such claims must be analyzed accordingly.

[1] Peter J. Brown, U.S. and China Can’t Calm South China Sea, Asia Times, June 4, 2010.

[2] Rebecca Blumenstein & Gordon Fairclough, Japan Caves In on China; Looks to U.S., WSJ, Sept. 24, 2010, at A13.

[3] See Yobo Kubota, Japan Releases China Fishing Boat Captain: Report, Reuters, Sept. 24, 2010, available at

[4] Blumenstein, supra note 2.

[5] Brown, supra note 1.

[6] Blumenstein, supra note 2.