Japan may further damage already frayed relations with China if it moves military forces closer to a group of islets claimed by both nations, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.
The Defense Ministry will deploy as many as 100 personnel to Yonaguni Island as early as April 2014, the Nikkei newspaper reported yesterday without citing anyone. That would put troops within 200 miles (330 kilometers) of where a Chinese trawler collided with Japanese Coast Guard boats in September, near the disputed isles known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
“This ups the ante,” Kingston said. “Deploying forces closer to the scene of the action won’t be interpreted positively in Beijing.”
China and Japan have yet to implement a 2008 agreement to jointly develop undersea natural gas fields in waters near the islands. Sovereignty over the rocky, uninhabited islets would extend either nation’s territorial claim to undersea resources. Japan’s Coast Guard on Nov. 20 warned two Chinese fishery patrol ships not to enter territorial waters after spotting them near one of the islands.
Japan may also deploy its military to Miyako and Ishigaki islands, the Nikkei said. Ishigaki is about 100 miles south of the islet group. Defense and foreign ministry officials weren’t available for comment yesterday on the Nikkei report.
Tensions between Asia’s two largest economies heightened after a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese Coast Guard boats collided near the islands on Sept. 7. China cut off ministerial talks after Japan detained the captain of the fishing boat for 17 days. The clash also reportedly prompted Beijing to cut off exports of rare earth minerals used in the manufacture of hybrid car batteries and wind turbines.
As many as 3,000 flag-waving Japanese demonstrators marched through Tokyo on Oct. 16 to protest China’s handling of the collision, with former air force chief Toshio Tamogami leading the procession to the Chinese embassy. The gathering in Japan was matched by a rival protest in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where a similar number of Chinese chanted slogans such as “fight Japan,” state-run Xinhua news service reported.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan reiterated his country’s “firm” stance on the disputed islands during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama on Nov. 13, while also calling for “mutually beneficial” ties.
‘Out of Control’
“Lessening of tensions didn’t happen in Yokohama,” Temple’s Kingston said. “Both sides have contributed to the escalation of this incident. It could have been handled and contained, but now it’s spinning out of control.”
China earlier this month rebuffed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer to mediate the dispute, rejecting her contention that the area falls under the U.S. security blanket.
“The Diaoyu islands are Chinese territory, and the dispute over the islands with Japan is a matter between China and Japan,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.
The spat with Japan “has regional implications,” Temple’s Kingston said. “Other countries have similar disputes with China.”
China has rejected calls by the U.S., Japan and Southeast Asian nations to agree on binding rules for encounters in disputed waters.
Rocky outcrops in the South China Sea that may contain oil and gas reserves are claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China has declined regional talks on these claims, seeking to restrict territorial disputes to one-on-one negotiations.