Protests erupted in China and Hong Kong over the weekend as Japanese activists landed on an island in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, intensifying a dispute between Asia’s two biggest economies.
Demonstrations yesterday in more than 10 Chinese cities featured calls for a boycott of Japanese goods, the state-run China Youth Daily said today. Japan asked the Chinese government to protect its citizens living in China, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said.
“Japanese moving around China should be aware of their surroundings and demonstrations in their area,” Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo. China Daily said the protests of varying size in cities including Beijing, Qingdao, Guangzhou and Shenzhen were mostly peaceful and the newspaper urged people to be “rational” and not violent.
The Japanese mission came days after a group of mostly Hong Kong activists were arrested and deported for visiting one of the islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Sovereignty of the area gives the holder control of undersea natural gas and oil fields and the two countries signed a joint development agreement in 2008 that has yet to be implemented.
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. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in April said his government is seeking to buy the uninhabited chain from a private Japanese owner, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in July said the national government may do so, drawing China’s condemnation.
Purchasing 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. Japan will also replace its ambassador to China after he criticized the proposal to purchase the islands, the Yomiuri newspaper said, without citing anyone.
Pushing back against China has its risks, as Japan found in 2010 when its Coast Guard 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 used in the manufacture of electronic goods and hybrid cars, according to Japan’s government.
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 website.
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.
“China’s constant forbearance towards Japan’s actions in the Diaoyu Islands is no longer accepted by its people,” the Ming Pao newspaper said, according to a translation on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s monitoring service.
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.
The 10 Japanese activists were part of a group of about 150 that sailed from Okinawa prefecture and television footage showed them raising the Japanese flag. The Chinese group that arrived on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 that ended World War II, planted both Chinese and Taiwan flags.
The 10 people swam back to their boats after two hours, a Japanese Coast Guard official, who declined to be identified citing official policy, said by phone.
Fujimura today said that while the landing was “regrettable,” China’s position was untenable.
“Historically and as a matter of international law, the Senkaku islands are our country’s territory,” he said.
Telephone calls to Ganbare Nippon, the organizer of the visit, were unanswered.
China claims the islands were unjustly handed back to Japan after the U.S. ended its postwar occupation of Okinawa in the early 1970s. Taiwan also claims them.
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, Thayer 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.