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. …