Tensions increase as Japan and China continue islets stand-off


OFFICIALS FROM Asia’s two most powerful economies are struggling to put out the latest diplomatic fires from their stand-off over a chain of disputed islets.

Tokyo is sending its vice foreign minister to Beijing in a bid to dial down tensions, ratcheted up further yesterday when Chinese ships again entered waters near the islets, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

The reported incursion by two Chinese surveillance ships and a fishing patrol boat sparked another official protest from Tokyo and an angry response from Japan’s top government spokesman Osamu Fujimura, who promised to “raise objections at the highest level.”

Japanese coast guard ships patrolling the seas around the region have been engaged in a Cold War style game of cat and mouse with Chinese vessels for days, with the promise of more to come. News agencies in Taiwan and Hong Kong say Chinese activists have threatened to sail on the five islets this week to challenge Japan’s sovereignty. Japanese neo-nationalists are also promising another, larger excursion to the area in a possible reprisal of tit-for-tat landings on the largest of the islets last month.

The bitter row was triggered by Japan’s nationalisation of three of the islets this month. The government of prime minister Yoshihiko Noda says it was trying to outflank a more provocative attempt by Tokyo’s right-wing governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to buy the islets from their private owner but China says the nationalisation was “cooked up” by “right-wing elements”.

Mr Noda warned over the weekend that anti-Japanese protests that have swept China since the dispute began could harm the country’s interests. Japan is China’s biggest investor, and several large Japanese companies, including Sony, Panasonic and Toyota, have suspended some production and pulled staff back to Tokyo.

The world’s second- and third-largest economies boast trade ties worth about $340 billion a year. Last week China’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, warned in a front-page editorial that Japan risked putting its economy back two decades if it continued what the paper called “provocations”.

Tokyo is pinning its hopes for a diplomatic solution on vice foreign minister Chikao Kawai, who travels to China on Monday, but with both sides repeating the identical mantra that the islets are an “inherent” part of their territory, a solution is likely to be elusive.