A torn apart Japanese 'Rising Sun' flag is placed on dead fish during a demonstration in front of the Japan Exchange Association over the continued diplomatic Senkaku Islands dispute between Tokyo and Beijing.
Credit: SAM YEH

TOKYO, Japan — A tiny group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea has again become a flashpoint in a longstanding territorial dispute between East Asia's two great rivals.

It isn't the first time that Japan and China have been locked into a dispute over the Senkakus, which are administered by the former but claimed by the latter.

Mercifully, the exchanges have been purely diplomatic, but officials on both sides are contending with an unexpected intrusion into the debate in the form of Tokyo's combative, and unashamedly nationalist, governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

The islands themselves are unremarkable. What interests Asia's two biggest economies most are the rich fishing grounds and potentially huge under-sea deposits of oil and natural gas.

The low-level tension that has historically steered the Senkaku dispute from one manageable crisis to the next took a more alarming turn in April when Ishihara proposed that the Tokyo government buy the islands from their private Japanese owners.

In less than a month, the plan attracted public donations totaling almost one billion yen ($13 million).

Last week, the move forced Japan's national government to raise the idea of a counter proposal, fearing that in Ishihara's hands, the islands would become the source of more friction, or even a military skirmish.

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While Japan has never inhabited the Senkakus — apparently to avoid inflaming an already delicate situation — Ishihara, who has a long history of baiting China, vowed to "protect" them from Chinese intrusion.

The islands, known as the Diaoyu in Chinese, lie 87 miles north of Japan's Ishigaki island, between Taiwan and Okinawa. They are also claimed by Taiwan.

Ishihara's surprise move forced Japan's government into a corner. Earlier this month, the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, announced that the central government was considering nationalizing the three main islands in the chain, drawing a furious response from Beijing.

China's foreign ministry vowed to defend what it regards as "sacred territory," while last week Chinese fishing and patrol vessels twice entered Japanese territorial waters near the islands — an intrusion Japan denounced as "extremely serious."

Last weekend, Tokyo took the unusual step of temporarily recalling its ambassador to Beijing to discuss a response.

"It is clear that the Senkaku Islands are inherently Japanese territory from a historical point of view and in terms of international law, and that they are under the effective control of Japan," Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura, told reporters in Tokyo.

China's foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, countered: "Chinese fisheries patrol boats went to the waters administered by China in accordance with Chinese law. China does not accept the representations lodged by the Japanese side."

The dispute is one of several centered on far-flung island territories with have important strategic and economic value.

Japan and Russia remain some way off resolving their competing claims to the Northern Territories, invaded by the Soviet Union in the dying days of World War II. And there is no end in sight, either, to the row between Japan and South Korea over Takeshima, an island in the Japan Sea the Koreans call Dokdo.

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China's territorial ambitions in the region extend to the Spratly islands, located in an area of the South China Sea with potentially lucrative oil deposits. Here, as in the East China Sea, fishermen are being used to test the reactions of other countries in the region.

While it fended off Japanese protests, China sent its largest ever fleet of fishing vessels to waters near the Spratly Islands, the latest round in what Vietnam and the Philippines, which also claim the islands, describe as a deliberate policy of Chinese provocation.

But Ishihara may not be the only catalyst behind the recent rise in tensions surrounding the Senkakus. China's leadership is about to undergo a rare reshuffle in the second half of this year, while in Japan, the government's majority is hanging by a thread in a deeply divided parliament.

A short bout of saber rattling over a maritime dispute would do neither government harm at a time of uncertainty at home.

The Communist Party-controlled China Post accused Noda of using the Senkaku issue to shore up his dwindling support base after the recent defection of dozens of party members over tax reform.

The paper also noted that the state purchase of the islands would seal Washington's commitment to protect them under the countries joint security treaty.

In an editorial outlining China's historical claims to the islands, it said: "All Noda wants is to ensure the American commitment to the protection of the Senkaku Islands by purchasing the land Ishihara is planning to buy and nationalizing it so that the United States may be led to change its neutral position vis-a-vis the disputed islets to recognition of Japan's ultimate sovereignty over them."

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Those fractious exchanges notwithstanding, both sides will be desperate to avoid a repeat of an incident in 2010, which ended in the detention of a Chinese trawler skipper who was accused of ramming his boat into Japanese coast guard vessels.

The captain was released without charge — a fudge that enraged Japanese nationalists — but the incident cast a shadow over bilateral economic and diplomatic ties for months.

As Japan's foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, told reporters after talks with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, at a disastrous ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia last week: "It is important to respond calmly so that Japan-China relations overall are not affected."

Physically, the seas around the Senkakus are anything but inactive; But rhetoric aside, expect China and Japan to steer towards calmer political waters in the coming weeks.

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