China Butts Heads With Japan

East Asia may be reveling in its unprecedented economic growth, but old-fashioned territorial feuds continue to fester. The latest reminder came last week at the United Nations, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warning darkly of the unnamed "consequences" Japan would incur unless it released the captain of a Chinese fishing boat "immediately and unconditionally." The skipper and his crew were arrested on Sept. 7 after his vessel collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships off a disputed and uninhabited island chain.

Japan announced Friday it would free the Chinese captain, much to everyone else's relief. But this spat in the East China Sea is only a taste of what's to come as a new generation of top leaders, currently led by China's heir apparent, Xi Jinping, prepares to take power in 2012. The recent showdown followed the traditional pattern, with an incumbent administration trying to cement its legacy while the incoming team asserts its own authority. Both groups must play to nationalistic voices in the Chinese citizenry. Japan is usually the softest (and safest) target because of its acrimonious history with the mainland. But as the transition moves forward, Beijing can be expected to balk at international pressure on all sorts of issues, like currency revaluation and territorial disputes. The question now becomes, how much hardball will Beijing play?