Islands dispute leaves diplomatic ties in tatters


The territorial stand-off between China and Japan has raised the spectre of war, write CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing and DAVID McNEILLin Tokyo

ASIA’S TWO economic powerhouses should be celebrating 40 years of diplomatic ties. Instead Japan and China remain locked in a tense stand-off that has raised the spectre of war.

Beijing is trying to establish its sovereignty over a remote group of islets in the South China Sea, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Japan nationalised the islands this month after the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, threatened to buy them.

Tensions have ratcheted up since then, with violent demonstrations across China and jingoistic sabre-rattling by Japanese right-wingers as one of the region’s most enduring enmities again heats up.

An official from the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries told Xinhua news agency that Japan had “ruined the atmosphere of the 40th anniversary”. He said the Japanese government’s decision to nationalise the islands was “illegal” and “severely damaged” relations.

Thousands of Chinese took to the streets last week in violent protests across the country in which Japanese businesses were attacked, cars set on fire and restaurants closed.

In Tokyo, an estimated 800 people marched yesterday to the Chinese embassy, where they shouted slogans denouncing China as a “brute state” and “fascist”. Nationalists waved Japanese flags and placards pledging to fight over the islands.

Japan’s coastguard continues to play a game of cat-and-mouse with Chinese fishing patrols in waters near the islands, about 2,000km (1,240 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported that the ruling Chinese Communist Party would send a delegation to Japan today as part of diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over the dispute.

But with Japan facing an election before the end of the year and China about to embark on a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the chances of compromise are slim. There are regular outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiment in China but this is the worst since 2005, when there were riots over a history book the Chinese felt downplayed Japanese atrocities in China during the second World War.

Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping told the China-Asean Business and Investment Summit last week that China was committed to solving disputes over territory and maritime rights peacefully. But he warned that it would also defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was re-elected government chief last week, reaffirmed the standard Tokyo line that the islands are Japanese and therefore the dispute can only be dealt with under domestic law.

By buying the islands he tried to outflank Ishihara, but that seems to have backfired as the subtleties of Japan’s property laws are lost on Beijing.

Noda said Japan must be firm “without being provocative or being provoked” on territorial issues. He faces a tough election and cannot be accused of weakness by the main opposition Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), which takes an even tougher line.

Former Japanese defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, a frontrunner to lead the LDP, said last week he was inspired by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s handling of the Falklands crisis in 1982, when Britain fought a war with Argentina to keep the islands.

“I have no plan to withdraw the nationalisation. Losing even a small part of your territory means you will eventually lose the whole country,” he said.

Now, instead of a gala concert this week, the mood in China has turned fiercely anti-Japan. The world’s second-largest economy has already said the row will have an impact on trade with Japan, the third-largest economy in the world. They have two-way trade of about €265 billion, and Japanese companies including Toyota and Panasonic have invested billions of dollars in China.

A Reuters poll at the weekend showed that 41 per cent of Japanese firms expected the row to affect their business plans and some were mulling shifting operations elsewhere.

Nationalism in China is intensifying. Chinese bakeries in some cities are selling anti-Japanese “mooncakes” to mark the Moon Festival, spurning the usual auspicious messages in favour of “Kill the Japanese” or “Hate Little Japan”. The country’s largest search engine, Baidu, featured an animated illustration of the islands, while the country’s biggest internet company, Tencent, placed a banner on its QQ website commemorating the 81st anniversary last week of the Mukden Incident, which led to Japan’s invasion of China.

In Taipei, capital of self-ruled Taiwan, hundreds marched yesterday to protest against Japan for occupying the islands.

Last week, some of the more shrill Chinese voices were calling for a nuclear response to what is seen as Japanese aggression.

Should the stand-off escalate, this would most likely draw in the US as it has said the disputed islands are “clearly” covered by a 1960 treaty obliging the US to help Japan if it is attacked.

Chinese people are still angry over Japan’s invasion and brutal occupation between 1931 and 1945, and there is a feeling that Japan has not done enough to atone for its military aggression.

The archipelago is made up of tiny rock outcroppings that have been a sore point between China and Japan for decades. Japan has claimed the islands since 1895. The US took jurisdiction after the second World War and turned them over to Japan in 1972.

Japan also has an interest in claiming the islands as part of its efforts to keep a grip on its maritime holdings. Japan has a total exclusive economic zone of 4.5 million square kilometres in the high seas, five times more than its much bigger and more populous neighbour, even though they both have around the same amount of coastline.

Japan has negotiated the Senkaku issue in the past at international level, but each time both sides agreed to shelve it.

“If both sides insist on their own positions and the matter is settled through military force, Japan will have no chance of prevailing,” Magosaki Ukeru, former director general of the foreign ministry’s international information bureau, wrote in an editorial in the Asia-Pacific Journal.

“Leaving the issue on the shelf is in Japan’s national interest. In the context of China’s expansion of its military force, Japan is required to make a calm assessment of prevailing conditions.”

Akihiro Suzuki was among hundreds of Japanese neo-nationalists who made the 1,900km (1,180-mile) trip from Tokyo to the remote islets last month, and the only member of the Tokyo assembly. “In general military terms China is more powerful,” he said. “But with the weapons and technology we have from America, we would be able to respond in a short-term, regional conflict.”

Hiroyuki Kurihara, spokesman for the family that sold the islands to the Japanese government, believes China is becoming a strong power and Japan needs to protect its national interest.

“I personally share Governor Ishihara’s political concerns about China’s growing power. But I don’t think China will go to war. It has too much to lose economically and wants to be part of the developed world,” said Kurihara. He recalled that after China began making claim to the islands in the 1970s, a group of Japanese ultra-nationalists sailed to the Senkakus in 1978, taking two goats. The goats have since multiplied into a large herd of “around 2,000” on the largest of the islands.