A Japanese coast guard vessel on patrol around Uotsurijima / Diaoyudao. Photos from Reuters/Kyodo
Reiterating a pledge on Monday by Premier Wen Jiabao, China's military-run People's Liberation Army Daily said on Wednesday that there would be "absolutely no concession" on its territorial dispute with Japan.
The dispute centers around a group of islands located between Taiwan and Okinawa - called the Senkakus in Japan and widely known as the Diaoyu Islands in the Chinese speaking world (though spelled as Tiaoyu in English transliterations for Chinese used in Taiwan).
The islets, eight in total, are small maritime features, some barely above the ocean's surface. The largest island in the group, Uotsuri Island (as known in Japan) or Diaoyu Island (as known in China), is about 1.5 square miles, but none of the others are bigger than a square mile in size.
Although China and Japan have had a long-standing rivalry in the East China Sea over territorial waters, resource exploitation rights, and the ownership of small islands in the area, this past summer has seen tensions rise after Japan announced a decision to formally purchase three of the islands from a private owner for 2.05 billion yen ($26.3 million), finalized September 11.
The move would effectively nationalize the islands and place them under government control in Japan. For China, the resistance is mostly based on principle -- since it does not recognize any Japanese control of the islands (private or public), the move is illegal in its eyes regardless. Chinese analysts have warned that the purchase potentially sets the stage for defenses and other installations to be placed onto the islands by Tokyo.
The three islands in question, Uotsurijima, Minamikojima, and Kitakojima in Japanese, and Diaoyudao, Nanxiaodao and Beixiaodao in Chinese, mean the same innocuous things in both languages: "fishing island", "southern small island", and "northern small island" respectively, an indication of their historical irrelevance.
Chinese nationalists, sensitive to issues of territorial integrity due to teachings about humiliation and foreign invasion, especially in regard to Japan's past military aggression and atrocities in World War II, are asking for stronger reactions from their government apart from diplomatic warnings. Overtly nationalist and anti-Japanese newspapers in China, such as the Global Times, have run articles calling for Japan to be punished and "taught a lesson".
Despite strong protests from the Chinese government ahead of the purchase, Japanese government statements have pushed for calm, saying the transaction is only for the "peaceful and stable management" of the islands.
"This should not cause any problems with other countries or regions," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujiwara said Wednesday, in a statement that seemed almost negligent, if not willfully dismissive, of the potential ramifications with China.
On Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said that "there is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are a part of Japanese territory," reiterating the Japanese position that there is in fact "no territorial dispute over the islands."
"We must not let this issue get in the way of the stable development of Tokyo-Beijing ties," added Genba.
Chinese protests in August across numerous cities witnessed limited targeting of Japanese goods and automobiles. Asia-watchers are likewise warning that further tensions could upset bilateral trade, at a time when stable economic relations between the two countries remain a strong point in an otherwise uninspiring global economic setting.
Kurt Campbell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, noted on Tuesday to the press that "This is the cockpit of the global economy and the stakes could not be bigger and the desire is to have all leaders to keep that squarely in mind."
A file photo of one of the two Chinese marine surveillance vessels now also on patrol around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Photo: Reuters
Japan, which administers the islands since the U.S. transferred them to its control after World War II, maintains that there is no real legal dispute over their status. Both the governments of mainland China (the People's Republic) and Taiwan (the Republic of China) say the islands were taken by Japan since the end of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895, along with Taiwan, and should have been transferred back to Chinese control along with other territories Japan had taken by aggression before 1945.
The Republic of China government on Taiwan, which has long maintained friendly diplomatic and economic relations with Japan in order to counterbalance potential animosities with Beijing, withdrew its envoy to Japan (Japan does not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state, so the official is not given formal diplomatic status) on Tuesday in protest. The Foreign Ministry in Taipei then offered a "stern protest" against Japan's decision to nationalize the islands.
Beijing has in turn deployed two maritime surveillance ships -- the equivalent of coast guard vessels -- to patrol the waters around the islands.
On Tuesday, Japan also announced the replacement of its ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, former CEO of Itochu, by Shinichi Nishimiya, a career diplomat. Statements made by Niwa earlier this summer were thought too sympathetic to Chinese arguments by nationalistic Japanese parliament members, who asked for his dismissal.
On Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense added its voice to the series of official warnings from Beijing, saying that "The Chinese government and armed forces stand firm and are unshakeable in their determination and will safeguard sovereignty over the nation's territories... We are watching closely the evolution of the situation and reserve the right to take reciprocal measures."
At the same time, the People's Liberation Army has launched small military exercises near the Yellow Sea (north of the East China Sea), meant to simulate attacks and seizure of small islands.