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Expert Brief | Yuki Tatsumi on Japan-China Tensions over Senkaku/Daoyutai Islands

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Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands is casting a long
shadow over Japan-China relations.  During the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostock over the weekend, Japanese Prime
Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese President Hu Jintao did not hold bilateral
talks.  On September 8th, Chinese Foreign Minister Spokesman
Qing Gan suggested that it was Japan’s fault that the Noda-Hu meeting did not happen,
denouncing Japan for not “squarely considering China’s position on its
territory and our determination.” 
 
It is clear Qing refers to the moves by the Japanese government to nationalize
the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands for the last several months.  In particular,
China is reacting to the reporting made by major Japanese newspapers on
September 5th that the Japanese government will purchase a part of
the Senkaku Islands (Uotsuri, Kita Kojima, and Minami Kojima) for a reported
2.05 billion yen.      
 
The Senkakus/Diaoyutai Islands consist of five islands (Uotsuri Jima, Kuba
Jima, Taisho Jima, Minami Kojima, and Kita Kojima), and three rocks (Okino
Kitaiwa, Okino Minami-iwa, and Tobise) that are close to the Chinese mainland,
Okinawa, and the Taiwanese coast.   The islands have been under the
administrative control of Japan and have been highly contested since
1968. 

Yuki Tatsumi, a Senior Associate at Stimson, offers the following observation
on the recent tension between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkakus:

1. The management of this issue has been particularly
challenging for Tokyo and Beijing.  In the past, Japan and China
managed the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands by essentially
“shelving” the issue and by not overtly asserting its claimed sovereignty
over these islands.  Whenever Japanese authorities detected Chinese
fishing vessels entering the waters near Senkaku, it quietly captured the
ship and set them home.  The Chinese government, on its part, did not
get involved in activities by their fishing vessels.

2. This practice of “shelving” the issue changed in
September 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese
Coast Guard (JCG) vessel.  When the captain of the trawler was
arrested, the Chinese government retaliated by limiting the export of rare
earth minerals to Japan.

3. The governments in both Tokyo and Beijing cannot afford
to lose public support for their respective domestic political reasons and
have little incentive to pursue a non-confrontational alternative
approaches at the moment.

In the absence of an official announcement by the Japanese
government, the details of the reported purchase is unknown.  “What is
also unclear is what the Noda government plans to do with the three islands
after it purchases them,” Tatsumi argues.  She also has stated, “Now that
the historical ‘shelving’ approach is no longer a viable option, the
governments in both Tokyo and Beijing will be hard pressed to find a new
approach towards the Senkaku/Diaoyutai issue.  The two governments must be
careful not to let their public opinion dictate their policy towards one
another.  Leadership in both governments should do its utmost to explore
an alternative framework to engage one another on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai
issue.

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