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.

The islands came under US jurisdiction from the end of the second World War until 1972 and were among the many issues swept under the rug by successive US and Japanese administrations. The China-Japan Joint Declaration of 1972 was widely expected in Taiwan and China to hand over jurisdiction to Beijing and planted the seeds of this summer’s conflict when it did not.

Debate rages about the true value of the rocks. The area around the Senkakus/Diaoyus is routinely described as “rich” in resources but that assessment is much disputed. “The hydrocarbon reserves are not very significant at all,” said James Manicom, a visiting researcher at the Ocean Policy Research Foundation in Tokyo.

In an interview last year with the National Bureau of Asian Research, he added: “If the two sides were really desperate for energy, presumably they would recognise that the fastest way to access the resources is to exploit them, rather than argue over them.”

Some observers therefore conclude that the conflict is rooted in politics, not oil or fish. To China, the Diaoyus are a symbol of Japanese colonialism, swiped as the spoils of war during a period of national weakness. The day after Noda’s announcement of Japan’s nationalisation plan, a Chinese government spokesman called the islets “sacred territory”.

The fact that conservatives such as Ishihara routinely deny Japanese war crimes against China helps inflame tensions and ensure the Chinese further dig in their heels.

For Japanese nationalists, the rocks are a line in the sand against the rising maritime might of its increasingly powerful neighbour.

“China is becoming a very strong power. We have to protect our national interest,” says Hiroyuki Kurihara, a spokesman for the family that owns four of the five islands.

The Kuriharas, who are reportedly in financial difficulty, say they have long feared that a private buyer could be a front for a Chinese corporation or owner.

If, as expected, Japan’s government completes negotiations with the Kuriharas and buys the islands it will become directly responsible for what happens to them. In the meantime, Tokyo will repeat the mantra that they are Japanese and therefore the dispute can only be dealt with under domestic law, ignoring precedents for diplomatic negotiation and accommodation.

In the late 1970s, China’s vice-premier, Deng Xiaoping, agreed to shelve the dispute during negotiations with Japan. Deng said the “next generation” might have the wisdom to resolve the conflict. So far he appears he was wrong.