Tuesday, September 21, 2010

China and Japan -Trouble over some caprine islands

A HERD of feral goats on a tiny unpopulated island in the East China Sea live in blissful unawareness of a diplomatic storm brewing around their remote habitat.

Since September 7th, when the Japanese authorities arrested the crew of a Chinese fishing boat near the islet, one of the biggest rows in years has erupted between the two countries. Though resentful of the Japanese, China also worries about keeping its own nationalists in check.

The goat-infested island is part of a group of small outcrops controlled by the Japanese, who call them the Senkaku Islands, and also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu. They are virtually uninhabitable (though the goats and a rare species of mole scratch a living on the largest one), but both countries regard them as important, not least as a marker for wider territorial claims in an oil-rich sea.

There have been periodic flare-ups over the islands before, usually involving attempts by nationalists to land on them or, in December 2008, a close approach by Chinese survey vessels. But the detention of the fishing boat’s captain (the rest of the crew was released on September 13th) makes this clash emotive in China.

Many more Chinese fishing boats have been spotted this year in tuna-teeming waters off the islands. The detained captain is accused of ramming his into at least one if not two (much larger) Japanese patrol boats which were attempting to shoo the vessel away. A Japanese official says there is no evidence the Chinese government has been encouraging fishermen to behave provocatively. He says the captain could have been drunk. A court ruled on September 10th that the man could be held for up to ten more days while the authorities decide whether to press charges. China has called Japan’s action “ridiculous, illegal and invalid” and has demanded the fisherman’s release.

Only a month into his posting, Japan’s ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, has already received five dressings down over this at the Chinese foreign ministry, including one summons in the small hours. China has called off a scheduled round of talks with Japan over the exploitation of gasfields under the East China Sea. After bitter acrimony over maritime boundaries (Japan says the fields straddle them, whereas China claims them all), the two countries agreed in 2008 to turn the East China Sea into a “sea of peace, co-operation and friendship” and exploit the fields jointly. This accord now looks in jeopardy.

A Japanese official says the incident may be an isolated one, but China’s efforts to secure its maritime interests have recently become “more provocative and overconfident” (a view that would find sympathy among officials in Washington, DC and elsewhere in Asia). A defence white paper released in Tokyo earlier this month noted that in March, six Chinese vessels, including a destroyer, had passed through Japanese waters on their way into the Pacific Ocean. A month later, ten ships, including submarines and destroyers, followed the same route before conducting apparent exercises near Japan’s Okinotori island. Chinese helicopters buzzed Japanese destroyers monitoring the vessels.

Resolution of the latest fracas could be complicated by noisy nationalism in China. So far the public reaction has been largely confined to small demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, diatribes on the internet and fulminations in some newspapers. Global Times, published in Beijing, called for efforts to “contain” Japan by using trade as leverage.

The Chinese government is habitually wary of street protests, even ones that appear to support its own line. It allowed big anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005, but quickly moved to suppress them, fearing they might give cover to broader dissent. September 18th is the anniversary of an incident in 1931 that led to Japan’s occupation of northeast China. Calls for protests on that day have been rife on the internet. Both governments will be nervous. International Herald Tribune

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