Rocky relations

THREE ASIAN economic giants, China, Japan and South Korea, are once again engaged in a bitter feud over disputed islands, raising tensions in East Asia and giving an opportunity to supra-nationalists in all three countries to proudly thump their chests and demand action against rivals.

Trouble has been brewing between Japan and China over the fate of Senkaku Islands, which are under Japanese ownership, since early this year after Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara said he was keen to buy the disputed islands from a Japanese national who owns them. The local government of Tokyo recently unveiled plans to buy four islets in the Senkaku chain in the western Pacific.

Not to be seen as a weakling, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who will be facing tough elections soon, said the Japanese government would buy the islands and not the municipal government of Tokyo. His statement triggered off protests in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and 14 demonstrators staged a daring landing in one of the largest disputed islands and raised their flags, before being caught and sent back by the Japanese authorities.

Then it was the turn of Japanese nationalists, who reached the same island in a flotilla of 21 fishing boats; 10 of them jumped into the shark-infested waters and placed the rising sun flag there, prompting a verbal lashing from the Chinese foreign ministry, condemning “the illegal behaviour of Japanese right-wingers”, which violated “China’s territorial sovereignty.”

The reaction in China was immediate. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in nearly a dozen cities , including Shenzhen, Qingdao and Hangzhou, attacking Japanese restaurants and cars. Chinese nationalists, including several local governments, called for a boycott of Japanese goods.

The protests were as fierce as the 2010 demonstrations against Japanese businesses in China and the rallies – some say orchestrated against Japanese interests were massive. And expectedly, authorities in Beijing tolerated the demonstrations.

China has also been involved in a tense stand-off with its other neighbours including Vietnam and the Philippines over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Japan too is engaged in a dispute with South Korea over the fate of a few islets – known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea – which escalated recently, leading to South Korea’s backing out of an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan. And leaders in both Japan and South Korea have been exacerbating tensions. Interestingly, most of the disputed islands are uninhabited rocks that hardly have any strategic value, but come wrapped in decades of mutual mistrust between the three economic giants.

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