It’s not too difficult to find good reasons why the Chinese response to Prime Minister Abe’s visit has been muted and passive compared to the 2011 maritime collision and 2012 real estate purchases. First, there’s no need to rub salt into the self-inflicted Japanese wound. The typical initial Chinese response to what it sees as provocation has been noisy and belligerent historically. But the international response has been overwhelmingly negative for Japan. Why drum up negative feedback from third parties that would only deflect blame from Japan? Besides, they’ve been there before with Prime Minister Koizumi, an experience that surely is acting as an anchor for subsequent incidents.
Second, the visit is an event that, once concluded, leaves bad feelings galore but no material aftereffects, unlike the Japanese government’s purchase of the three Senkaku Islands (of the four) that had remained in private hands. The purchase altered the status quo for good, a change that was irrelevant to Japanese minds in terms of the sovereignty question but meaningful to the Chinese, who appear to see the purchase from a very different legal and political perspective. The apprehension of the Chinese fishing boat captain falls somewhere in between, as the status quo was changed and remained so until he was released and returned without being charged, whereupon the situation reverted to the status quo. To put the three incidents in an analogous perspective, imagine Abe setting up residency on the Yasukuni premises or the Japanese authorities holding the Chinese captain in indefinite detention at, say, a labor reeducation camp. But they didn’t. The Japanese authorities released the captain without charging him. And Abe left promptly after giving a press briefing, leaving nary a trace of the authority of his office there.
Third, as a point partially subsidiary to the second, no perceived harm was done to China’s material interests or sovereignty claims by the Yasukuni visit. The actions of the Japanese legal system against the Chinese captain were certainly an exercise of Japan’s administrative powers that could be material in determining effective control and, ultimately, sovereignty. The Sekaku purchase likewise was perceived as a reinforcement of government control over the islands (which, in a way very different from the Chinese perspective, it was). The Yasukuni visit, by contras, hurt Chinese feelings, but caused little more by way of damage real or imagined.
The second and third points have significance going forward. I have seen a few analysts speculating about the possibility of Chinese escalation further down the line, citing (if my memory serves me correctly) the Senkaku purchase as precedent. I think that they are wrong. If there was a lesson to teach the Japanese, it was right after the visit. I do not think that revisiting the incident upon further reflection even a week after it occurred makes sense. Of course I could be wrong, in which case those analysts will waste no opportunity to point to their highly inconclusive speculations and claim that they’d told you so. And that’s how you play this game, friends.