Japan-China Tensions Rise over Tiny Islands ; Japan Took Possession of Disputed Senkakus Feb. 9

Article excerpt

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. …