Islands dispute rocks diplomatic relations between Japan and China
Some hardliners are discussing military options to defend the disputed territory, writes DAVID McNEILLin Tokyo
THERE COULD hardly be a less conspicuous spot for a conflict between Asia’s two greatest powers: a seven-square-mile group of unloved, goat-infested rocks uninhabited since the second World War.
Yet, a series of tit-for-tat landings by Chinese and Japanese nationalists has Tokyo and Beijing at diplomatic loggerheads and some openly discussing military options to defend what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea.
A flotilla of Japanese neonationalists sailed for the islands last weekend, wading ashore to plant hinomaru flags and shout slogans for accompanying journalists.
Hong Kong activists who staged the same stunt a week previously on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the second World War came home this week to a heroes’ welcome.
They have pledged to return to what they call the Diaoyus in October with more supporters.
That puts Tokyo in a serious bind. Japan deported the first batch of Chinese visitors last week, swatting away demands from conservatives to prosecute them for illegal trespass. Those demands will grow with another incursion, along with pressure to defend the islands militarily.
Lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima, a special adviser to Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, is among many politicians who want the government to toughen up.
“We should consider the use of a policing force, including the self-defence forces, to respond to the escalation of the situation,” he said last week.
Neither side wants the dispute to slide into military conflict. Japan in any case would have little chance of prevailing, at least without the help of its US ally, against the increasingly powerful Chinese armed forces, said Ukeru Magosaki, a former Japanese foreign ministry diplomat. “Japan is required to make a calm assessment of prevailing conditions,” he wrote recently.
Unsurprisingly, diplomats on both sides are reportedly furiously working behind the scenes to stop the dispute from worsening.
Any strategy will, however, require facing down hardliners. Japanese neoconservatives such as Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara argue that China is bent on Asian domination and “colonising” Japan.
He triggered the latest flap in April by launching a plan to buy the islands from their private Japanese owners, prompting Noda to announce their nationalisation. Ishihara said this week that the Japanese activists who (illegally) landed on the islands were “completely right”.
China and Taiwan have the stronger historical and geographic claims to the territory, which is 2,000km (1,243 miles) from Tokyo, and less than 200km (124 miles) from Taiwan’s coast. Japan took control in the 1890s after winning the Sino-Japan war.