On Friday, Chinese protesters clashed with Japanese coast guard ships and helicopters off the coast of the East China Sea islets, known as the Diaoyutai (钓鱼岛) in China and the Senkakus in Japan. The islands are located 170 km (100 miles) northeast of Taiwan and 410 km (250 miles) west of Japan’s Okinawa island are a long-standing source of dispute between China and Japan. In brief, Japan claimed the islands in 1895 when it colonized Taiwan, but the United States controlled them after World War II and returned them to Japan in 1972. While they are currently administered by Japan, the Diaoyutai are independently claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan. The islands are uninhabited but surrounded by rich fishing waters, and it is believed that they sit above vast underwater oil and gas deposits.
The Chinese ship, an aging fishing trawler, the “Restoration II” (“保钓二号”) set sail from Hong Kong on Sunday for the islands with a crew of about 25 ethnic Chinese activists from Hong Kong, the U.S. and Canada and elsewhere. According to the Washington Post, the protester’s ship was met by three Japanese Coast Guard helicopters and twenty ships, which used water cannons to deter the protesters. According to the International Herald Tribune, spokesman for the activists, Ku Kwai-yiu also maintains that the Japanese vessel deliberately rammed the protester’s ship, damaging the ship and injuring protesters aboard. According to Japanese coast guard official Koji Yoshida, the protesters came within 13 kilometers of the island before they were forced to return to port in Hong Kong.
In a follow-up match of verbal ping pong, the two sides each issued public statements.
Explaining the aggressive Japanese response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki is quoted by the Washington Post as saying:
“We have said that Japanese authorities will deal sternly and take steps to expel them if they enter and land on Japanese territory.”
In the International Herald Tribune, the Chinese Foreign Minstry counters:
“China had demanded through diplomatic channels that Japan should not take any action which may endanger those Chinese citizens and their vessel … but its illegal and tough actions injured the Chinese citizens and damaged their ship. We protest against this move of Japan.”
As for unqualified claims of sovereignty, the Washington Post writes:
“Historically, it’s clear that they are Japanese territory,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said earlier on Friday.
Naturally, this contradicts equally opaque statements in the China Daily which quotes an unnamed Chinese Foreign Ministry Official:
The Diaoyu Islands and adjacent islets have been Chinese territory since ancient times and China has incontestable historical and legal evidence on this, the Chinese official said, adding that it is completely legitimate for the Chinese citizens to declare such sovereignty.
The so-called “actual control” of the Diaoyu Islands by Japan severely infringes China’s sovereignty, the official said.
The Diaoyutai have long been a point of special interest for nationalists from both sides, and Friday’s voyage marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Hong Kong activist David Chan Yuk-cheung, who drowned while trying to land on the islands in 1996. Around the same time, the China Federation of Defending Diaoyudao Islands Limited, the group that organized the protest, claims that right-wing Japanese activists, in a devilishly brilliant Machiavellian machination, released goats on the islands. (If that isn’t in The Art of War, it should be!) The goats are now said number nearly 300, and their presence on the islands has been used as a pretext for the Ecological Society of Japan to travel to the islands study the plant life and thereby, further assert Japan’s claim. Additionally, in 1988, a 5.6 meter lighthouse was erected by Japanese activists to mark a claim on the largest of the Diaoyutai islands. And in 2003, according to the People’s Daily, nine members from the Tokyo-based Nihon Seinen Sha group, a Japanese right-wing organization, made a landing on the islands.
Obviously, the Diaoyutai are a potential flashpoint for future shenangians between China and Japan, but more seriously, this instance underscores China’s many border disputes which are likely to come to the fore as a self-confident China grows increasingly assertive. Already, the Diaoyutai incident has raised calls for China to beef-up its ability to patrol its coastline.
Personally, Shanghaiist is throwing our support to the goats.