China's island patrols, reported embargo on 'rare earth' elements, irritate Japan

China has sent security patrols near hotly disputed East China Sea islets and reportedly embargoed 'rare earth' elements to Japan. Tokyo is entering talks with Washington on how to respond.

Kyodo News/AP Photo
A demonstrator raises a clenched fist during an anti-Japan protest on Sunday, Oct. 24, in Lanzhou, northwestern China's Gansu province.

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Japan protested Monday against the presence of Chinese patrol boats near disputed islets that were recently at the center of the worst feud between the two Asian powers in years.

The feud, along with anti-Japan protests in several Chinese cities over the weekend and China's reported embargo on exports of so-called "rare earths" to Japan, show that relations between the two nations remain testy and threaten to bring the United States into the dispute.

For more than a month China has been sending patrols to the islets northeast of Taiwan called the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese. (See map.) But Japan first went public with its complaint in a press conference today, according to Agence France-Presse.

"[Sunday] night around 9:00 pm (1200 GMT) our coastguard sighted them and afterwards the two (Chinese ships) left there and sailed north toward China," Japan's top government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku told reporters Monday. Tokyo has issued a complaint with Beijing.

Japan, China, and Taiwan all claim the East China Sea islets, but Japan effectively controls them. Its coast guard enforces a 12-nautical-mile no-go zone around the islets, and chases away boats that enter within 24 nautical miles.

A bullet for the Chinese embassy

Tensions flared after Japan on Sept. 8 detained a Chinese fishing boat captain whom Tokyo says rammed two of its coast guard ships near the islets. The immediate crisis passed when Japan released the captain on Sept. 24, but the underlying territorial dispute remains, exacerbated by fishing resources as well as potential nearby energy resources.

China first sent its fisheries patrol boats to the area on Sept. 23, according to AFP, and dispatched more boats to the area on Oct. 14, according to Japanese media.

Taiwanese and Hong Kong media reported last month that China planned to begin regular, armed patrols to the islets after the dust-up involving the fishing captain.

China's Global Times reported that the Japanese coast guard had been "tracking" and "interfering" with Chinese fishery patrols in China's "rightful territory." In its webpage devoted to the ongoing controversy, Global Times also reported that China's embassy in Japan again received a threatening letter, along with a rifle bullet, warning China to steer clear of the islets.

Anti-Japan protests continue

Meanwhile, the Canadian Press reported that a fresh round of anti-Japan protests took place last weekend in at least six Chinese cities. Nationalist protesters in second-tier or smaller cities such as Changsha called for boycotts of Japanese goods, the agency reported. A first round of protests a week earlier coincided with anti-China protests by Japanese nationalists in Tokyo, who also urged their government to enforce its claim to the islets.

And CNN reported Japanese businessmen as saying China had still not resumed exports of "rare earth" minerals to Japan, used in a wide array of consumer products. It quoted Shigeo Nakamura, president of Advanced Material Japan Corporation.

"This," he [Nakamura] said, pointing to a tiny, two millimeter cylinder, "is a micro-motor from a mobile phone. If China stops supply of the raw material, you will not use the mobile phone. You will not see the TV. And you will not see any refrigerator."

China denies any official ban on rare earth exports to Japan.

Tokyo and US mull a response

The English-language version of Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun reported Monday that Tokyo and Washington are set to increase consultations over how to respond to China's military muscle-flexing. Washington is particularly concerned about aggressive Chinese naval activity in the East and South China Seas, the Yomiuri reported, citing Japanese and US diplomatic sources.

US officials have said that the islets are covered by the US-Japan security pact because they are administered by Japan, meaning the US would be committed to aiding Japan in any armed showdown over the islands.

Alarm bells also rang in Washington earlier this year when Beijing told US officials it now considered its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea a "core interest," putting it on par with claims to Taiwan and Tibet.

China has stepped up submarine, navy, and fisheries boat patrols in the South China Sea, too, raising concerns in some southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, who also claim all or part of those waters.

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