Japanese Land on Disputed Islands as Protests Fuel China Tension

U.S. Says Disputed Islands Covered by Defense Treaty
An aerial picture from a P3C of Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces shows the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and as Senkaku in Japanese, in the East China Sea. Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

Ten Japanese yesterday landed on an island in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China, fueling a dispute between Asia’s two biggest economies in a region that has no shortage of territorial spats.

The tit-for-tat mission by Japanese nationalists, including some legislators, came days after a group of mostly Hong Kong activists were arrested and deported for their own visit to the island in the chain known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Demonstrators gathered in several cities in China and in Hong Kong to protest against what they said was Japan’s illegal occupation of the outcrops and detention of Chinese citizens.

Tensions are rising over the islands -- and the right to the energy reserves and fisheries that go with them -- after Japan said it was seeking to buy some owned by a private individual. China called the move unlawful. The dispute has soured ties at a time when Japan is mired in a similar row with South Korea, while China is embroiled in spats with Vietnam and the Philippines over the oil-rich South China Sea.

Japan’s announcement that is trying to purchase some of the islands “lays down a marker that will leave no ambiguities on what is Japanese sovereign territory,” said Carlyle Thayer, a professor emeritus at the Australian Defense Force Academy, University of New South Wales. “One of the most important foreign policy issues facing Japan is China’s rise and growing assertiveness.”

Japanese and U.S. military officials will meet on Aug. 23 in Washington to discuss strengthening maritime defenses around outlying islands, the Nikkei newspaper reported yesterday. The talks will in part consider China’s expansion of sea power, it said. The Japanese government also intends to replace its ambassador to China after he criticized the proposal to purchase the islands, the Yomiuri newspaper said, without citing anyone.

Risky Business

Pushing back against China has its risks, as Japan found in 2010 when its coastguard clashed with a Chinese trawler in the disputed waters and arrested the captain. That sparked a diplomatic standoff, souring relations for months. China restricted supplies of rare-earth minerals needed by Japanese manufacturers for electronic gadgets and hybrid cars, the New York Times reported at the time.

Japan should immediately stop actions that undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement on its website yesterday.

Chinese protesters took to the streets yesterday in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Harbin and Qingdao, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Before 9 a.m., more than 100 people had gathered near Japan’s consulate in Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong province, Xinhua said. In Shenzhen, protesters overturned Japanese cars, including police vehicles, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper reported on its web site.

Mannequins Trampled

In Hong Kong, hundreds of people marched in a protest organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

“Japan is very bad, China is very good,” said a 70-year-old retiree clutching a miniature Chinese flag and who would only gave his first name as Nelson. “We protest against Japan entering our land.”

Demonstrators trampled on miniature mannequins of Japanese soldiers dressed in World War II uniforms while the crowd chanted “Diaoyu belongs to China. Get rid of Japanese militarism.”

Growing public anger over the Diaoyu group shows the pressure on Chinese leaders to take action, according to commentaries carried in Hong Kong papers.

“The mainland public have pointed the finger of blame at the Chinese government’s weak defense of territory,” the Ming Pao newspaper said, according to a translation of the editorial on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s monitoring service. “China’s constant forbearance towards Japan’s actions in the Diaoyu Islands is no longer accepted by its people.”

National Humiliation

The Chinese government had brought national humiliation by surrendering territory, while at the same time repressing its own people, Koo Sze-yiu, one of the 14 activists deported by Japan, told the South China Morning Post in an Aug. 18. article.

Given previous attempts by the Hong Kong group to sail to the islands were blocked by local authorities, it seems last week’s successful attempt had the backing of the central government, Zhou Yongsheng, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told the paper.

Japanese news reports said the police had considered filing charges of illegally entering Japanese territory and damaging government property after some of the Hong Kong activists threw bricks at coast guard vessels. Instead, seven were deported by air and the rest sailed out of Japanese waters under escort.

In yesterday’s landing, a flotilla of vessels with about 150 Japanese on board sailed from Okinawa prefecture’s Ishigaki last night, making landfall early this morning. Television footage showed them raising the Japanese flag.

No Permit

Ten people landed on the isle and swam back to their boats after two hours, a coast guard official, who declined to be identified citing official policy, said by phone. The group hadn’t broken any law under the coast guard’s authority, he said. While a permit is needed to visit the islands, Japanese police haven’t made a decision on what to do with the people who made the landing, an official in the Okinawa force said.

Nobody answered phone calls to Ganbare Nippon, the organizer of the visit.

China’s growing assertiveness and military capabilities are coupled with a sense of historical grievance over Japan’s invasion and occupation of the country as well as territorial concession imposed by stronger foreign powers. China claims the Diaoyu islands were unjustly handed back to Japan after the U.S. ended its postwar occupation of Okinawa in the early 1970s. Taiwan, which became the breakaway Republic of China after nationalist forces retreated there after losing the civil war, also claims the Diaoyu islands.

History Lesson

Chinese activists who sailed to Diaoyu on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 a week after the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, planted both Chinese and Taiwan flags, according to photographs of the event.

“What consequences will a country produce if it gets extremely bigoted and fearless?” asked an editorial in the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper yesterday. “The historical lessons should not be forgotten. The anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II is a mirror and people can see clearly that history and reality are difficult to separate.” The article was signed by Zhong Sheng, a pseudonym that translates as Voice of China.

The latest sign of China’s increased assertiveness is its decision to set up a military presence by the People’s Liberation Army in the city of Sansha in the Paracel Islands, a grouping that is jointly claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, Thayer said.

“Until now the PLA has stayed out of the South China Sea, but when they announced the garrison by the Central Military Commission, that’s pretty serious stuff,” he said.

South Korea

Territorial disputes are also undermining attempts by the U.S. to replace bipartite alliances with Japan and South Korea with a three-way regional alliance, he said.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak reignited rancor with Japan on Aug. 10 when he visited islets in the Sea of Japan.

Both nations claim the Liancourt Rocks, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, which lie 87 kilometers (54 miles) east of the closest South Korean territory and 158 kilometers from the nearest Japanese land.

Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea in protest after Lee’s trip.

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