Japan-China tensions rise over tiny islands

Japan took possession of disputed Senkakus Feb. 9.

In a sign of deepening popular and political animosity between China and Japan, Tokyo took formal possession this week of a tiny archipelago in the Pacific waters south of Japan. In the early morning of Feb. 9, Tokyo informed Beijing's embassy here that the Senkaku Islands would be administered by the Japanese coast guard.

The unexpectedly bold action by Tokyo received little attention here. But it is seen as a "serious chess move," says one diplomat, in a region where power relations are being redefined, and where tensions over energy, borders, military buildups, and ethnic rivalries are palpable. In Asia, drawing clear lines around territories that may hold oil and gas, is rare; Japan's move takes place amid a dispute with China over what constitutes legitimate zones of energy exploration in open seas.

While economic ties between "China Inc." and "Japan Inc." are warming and integrating, political feelings between China and Japan are not. The current atmosphere is "cool if not cold," a senior Japanese official says, due to a perception that China fuels "anti-Japanese sentiments" among its people, and is making "aggressive claims ... all over the Pacific."

"There is a huge disconnect between the economic and political relations of China and Japan," says Gerald Curtis, of Columbia University, on sabbatical in Tokyo. "Japanese business enthusiasm for the China economic miracle continues. But at the political level, there is no talk of integration. Rather, there is a stiffening back of nationalism in both countries."

Beijing's somewhat vague claims on the Senkakus date to the early 1980s. Chinese "activists" last year landed on one island and attacked a lighthouse, and a Chinese nuclear submarine was found in Senkaku waters that Japan claims. Chinese spokesman Kong Quan interrupted the new year holiday to describe Tokyo's formal claim as "illegal and unacceptable."

Tokyo has never acknowledged China's claim, which it says was made only after a US geological survey in the late 1970s indicated the area could contain petroleum. Moreover, under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan has shed much of its pacifist identity, sent troops to Iraq, and begun a quiet campaign to reposition opinion on formerly taboo subjects like missile technology and the dangers of an Asia with a North Korean nuclear program and a confident, wealthier China.

"We needed to remove the question that Senkaku was in some way a dispute," says Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takeshima. "We felt this step was reasonable to avoid any physical activity that would bring harm to China-Japan relations."

According to Mr. Takeshima, the largest island, where the lighthouse is located, had been owned by a fishing family for decades. On Feb. 9, this unnamed family transferred island rights to Tokyo, which put the coast guard in charge. No one - Japanese or foreign - may visit the island.

Japan is the world's second-largest economy, has a huge savings rate, and a large educated middle class. Yet China, with 1.3 billion people, cheap labor, and a policy of market competition, has become the world's seventh-largest economy. In the past year, China has passed Japan, becoming the US's third-largest trading partner. [Editor's note: The original version misstated China's status as a top US trade partner.]

The new circumstances concern Japan and deepens sentiments of fear and patriotism.

China plans to send a manned spacecraft into orbit this fall, something Japan has never attempted. China's military prowess is growing, though it has limited capability to project power conventionally.

China's hot economy makes it a major oil importer; concern over energy security has prompted China to cut recent energy deals in Canada, South America, and with Iran.

There have been no state visits between China and Japanese leaders in this century. Chinese point to Mr. Koizumi's regular visits to the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, where a number of Japanese war criminals are buried. For three generations, Koizumi's family has represented in the Diet the district that includes the headquarters of the Japanese Navy. "He's bred to a traditional view of Japanese patriotism and to a school among younger Japanese that the nation should no longer be bossed around by others," says a diplomat.

Yet much ill will between China and Japan stems from intense jockeying over potential energy fields in "EEZs," or exclusive economic zones. Japan sticks with a UN Law of the Sea definition of EEZs as being 200 miles from shore; China defines an EEZ as starting from the edge of the submerged continental shelf.

Last year a Chinese submarine cruised into Senkaku waters. Beijing said it was unintentional. Yet Japanese requests that China issue corrective measures to its submarine captains have not been honored, officials here say.

Last year, the US State Department said it would back up any Japanese security claim on the Senkakus. After World War II, at the San Francisco peace treaty, a line was drawn in the Pacific that was regarded as giving the Senkakus to Okinawa, which for many years was administered by a UN high commissioner. The Senkakus had been and still are often used by the US as practice grounds for bombing runs.

In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan. Shortly thereafter, Beijing made a preliminary claim. When Japanese diplomats visiting Beijing in the mid-1980s asked for a clarification, Deng Xiaoping called the issue a "dispute," and recommended it be resolved in the future. Tokyo objected to what it saw as a device to grab territory by declaring it disputed.

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