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Concerns mount as Japan, China island dispute shows no sign of easing (+video)

Twelve Chinese vessels have moved to the waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea to patrol and enforce the law, according to Chinese state media.

By Staff writer / September 19, 2012

An aerial photo shows the Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (l.) cruising as a Japan Coast Guard ship Ishigaki sails near Uotsuri island, one of the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea, September 14.

Kyodo/Reuters

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Latin America Editor

Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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China moves to snuff out anti-Japan protests after days of angry demonstrations over a territorial dispute forced Japanese businesses to shut their doors. Sarah Charlton reports.

Tensions are mounting over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, just one day after the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 occupation of China. Twelve Chinese vessels reportedly arrived in the waters around the islands today, and some fear there is potential of pushing rhetoric to the next level between China and Japan, which have two of the best-equipped militaries in the region.

On Sunday, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the territorial dispute could lead to a “violent conflict.” In comments made on his way to a weeklong trip to the Asia-Pacific region, he told reporters:

I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict.

The Chinese vessels – a combination of fishing patrol boats and surveillance ships – were reportedly sent to the Diaoyu islands, as the Chinese refer to the territory, or Senkaku, as they are known in Japan, in order to “conduct patrol and law enforcement,” reports China’s state media outlet, the People’s Daily. The first boats began to arrive yesterday afternoon. “This is the largest marine patrol in China’s history,” the paper wrote.

This follows a rise in anti-Japanese protests, which have spread to close to 100 Chinese cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. But the Japanese government has thus far been cautious in how it has dealt with the dispute, in part perhaps because of proximity of the flareup to the Sept. 18 anniversary of Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria, something that spurs protests annually, island disputes aside.

In an opinion piece, Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek writes that the tiny islets that are in dispute don't appear to be worthy of an international incident. But, he argues, this flareup between China and Japan feels different than past face-offs, like the sweeping 2005 protests over Japanese school textbooks downplaying Japan's role in World War II.

“The Japanese call them the Senkaku Islands, the Chinese refer to them as Diaoyu. Let me suggest a more appropriate name: Goat Islands. Goats are all you will find on the cluster of uninhabited rocks over which Japanese and Chinese seem ready to go to war,” writes Mr. Pesek.

He continues:

Diplomats in Tokyo and Beijing … are blaming one another over a mushrooming international crisis that has U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta worried about a military “blowup,” the last thing the world needs right now.

That isn’t as hyperbolic as it might sound. It is easy to envision a couple of Japanese businessmen being dragged from their corporate offices in Shanghai and beaten, or even killed, by an angry mob. Things could get out of hand very quickly, which explains why Panasonic Corp. (6752) and Canon Inc. are shutting Chinese plants. That goes, too, for naval ships near the disputed islands. Miscalculations, collisions and gunfire that lead to broader armed conflict aren’t hard to imagine. 

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