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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (March 29, 2004)

Island Dispute Damages Sino-Japanese Relations

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

The dramatic arrest of seven Chinese activists on a disputed Japanese-held island claimed by China has severely strained Sino-Japanese relations. The incident this week marks the first time Japanese police have detained Chinese nationals for such an offense - intruding on disputed territory - and it sparked protests in Beijing fueling anger in Tokyo.

In Japan, anti-Chinese sentiment is running high as the country's media focus on the gruesome murder trial of three Chinese students who killed a Japanese family of four - for about US$350 from a bank machine. Opportunistic Japanese politicians are exploiting this mood with strident nationalist rhetoric, further inflaming anti-Japanese passions in China. Unless Beijing and Tokyo make a strong and coordinated effort, the current dispute could easily spin out of control, threatening the two neighbors' booming economic ties.

In recent months, Sino-Japanese political tensions have for the first time begun to cast a shadow over the thriving economic links between the two countries. In February, Chinese officials suggested that Tokyo could lose a high-speed-train contract because of controversial visits to the war-tainted Yusukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (see China may block Japan deals over shrine, February 27). His visits to the shrine, a World War II memorial, have already inflicted major damage on high-level political ties, and have drawn fierce criticism from China, which suffered under Japanese occupation and wartime atrocities on a horrendous scale. Some Chinese have even threatened to throw themselves under the wheels of Japanese-made bullet trains if Tokyo gets the contract.

This stormy backdrop is amplifying the current high-seas drama. On Wednesday evening, seven Chinese activists were detained by Japanese police for landing on a small disputed islet, Uotsuri-shima, which is claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. The flag-waving members of the ultra-patriotic China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan) spent about 10 hours on the barren rock before Japanese police in helicopters finally caught them. During their time on the islet, they raised the Chinese flag, gave mobile-phone interviews to the Chinese media, and desperately tried to avoid capture.

Chinese activists plant flag on disputed islands
Japanese television broadcast pictures of the fugitives frantically scurrying around the rocky terrain as police helicopters tracked them down. On Hong Kong TV, the activists made patriotic declarations about the islands being Chinese territory. "We will resist Japanese attempts to remove us from the island. This is Chinese territory," one unidentified activist said in a mobile-phone interview.

Japanese police said the seven detainees would be questioned before being handed over to prosecutors. They will probably be deported for violating the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law. According to the police, one of the detainees had previously been arrested in Japan for vandalizing the Yasukuni Shrine in a protest after Koizumi's first controversial visit in August 2001 - he has made three more since that time.

The remote and distinctly unscenic outcropping on which the maritime drama unfolded is one of several uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, lying between Japan's southern island-prefecture of Okinawa and Taiwan. Japan calls the territory the Senkaku Islands, in China the islands are known as the Diaoyu, Taiwanese refer to them as the Tiaoyutai, and in English they are sometimes called the Pinnacle Islands.

Visually, the grouping is nothing more than a desolate collection of rocks, but the area around the islands is rich in fish, oil reserves and other valuable natural resources. This makes ownership a desirable financial asset.

Now Japanese rightists plan a landing
The activists' landing on Uotsuri marks their fourth attempt in the past nine months. Previous attempts all failed, although they almost succeeded in mid-January. In response to the landing, a Japanese ultra-nationalist organization, Nihon Seinensha, has announced that it intends to visit the islands in the next few days. This group built a small lighthouse on Uotsuri in 1978 and also erected a shrine there in 2000. Both incidents inflamed Chinese public opinion. The China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands has also said its members will soon make another voyage to the island. The Japanese Coast Guard has warned both groups that it will attempt to stop them. The controversy appears likely to continue.

Immediately after the activists' detention, Prime Minister Koizumi attempted to reduce tension over the incident. In a calm tone and using measured words, he said: "It is unusual, but natural for Japan, which is a country governed by law and which handles people according to the law." In a conciliatory tone, he added, "It is necessary for both parties to handle the case in as calm a manner as possible."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda was less tactful, however, simply stating, "In terms of both history and international law, there can be no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory. We regret that foreigners illegally landed on one of them."

Beijing took an equally firm line, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan saying, "The Diaoyu Islands have been China's territory from time immemorial." Commenting on the arrest of the Chinese activists, he said, "We think this is an illegal action that breaks international law, and moreover it is a serious provocation against China's sovereignty and territory and Chinese citizens' human rights." On Wednesday and Thursday Chinese protesters gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, where they burned Japanese flags and held up Chinese banners that read: "The Diaoyu Islands are China's territory."

On Thursday, prominent members of Koizumi's own party as well as the right-wing press engaged in nationalistic rhetoric. In an editorial, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper wrote, "The eight Senkaku Islands inherently belong to Japan. This is obvious from a historical point of view and an examination of international law." It concluded, "The blame must fall on China if unlawful acts by some activists from that country serve to worsen the bilateral relationship."

Brutal murders fuel anti-Chinese sentiment
The timing of the islet landing was particularly unpropitious for Japan-China ties as it coincided with a high-profile murder trial that has horrified Japan and given rise to anti-Chinese sentiment. On the day before the Senkaku incident, a 24-year-old former Chinese student, Wei Wei, pleaded guilty to brutally murdering a family of four in Fukuoka last June and dumping their bodies in the local bay.

In the first trial hearing, the Fukuoka district court heard a gruesome account of how Wei and two other former Chinese students, Wan Lian and Yang Ning, both in their early 20s, ruthlessly killed two children and their parents for just 37,000 yen ($348). Most disturbing, the men carefully planned their crime in advance, deciding to "kill the entire family, dump their bodies and withdraw money from a cash machine", the court was told.

Late one evening last June, Wei, Wang and Yang broke into the house of Shinjiro Matsumoto, whom they believed to be wealthy because he owned a Mercedes-Benz. They drowned his wife, Chika, in the bathtub and then smothered and strangled his 11-year-old son Kai. "I pushed the wife into the bath and pressed a pillow against the child," Wei told the distraught Fukuoka courtroom through an interpreter.

The gang next bound and gagged Matsumoto's eight-year-old daughter Hina to use as a hostage upon her father's return home. When Matsumoto discovered his daughter with a knife at her throat, he begged the men to spare her life. The trio demanded the access codes of cash-machine cards. Once the killers had the information, both father and daughter were strangled. The gang dumped the bodies in Hakata Bay, weighting them down with barbells. When they withdrew money from the victim's bank account, they found only a small sum. They had brutally murdered an entire family for just 37,000 yen.

The callous nature of the murders has shocked ordinary Japanese, creating suspicion about Chinese residents. It has also given a certain degree of respectability to the rhetoric of ultra-nationalists who stereotype Japan's Chinese community as being largely comprising criminal elements. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is the best-known demagogue when it comes to whipping up anti-foreigner sentiment.

Sino-Japanese relations unlikely to improve in short term
The Senkaku landing and the murders - two unrelated events - have the potential to inflict substantial damage on already strained Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese public opinion is still seething about Koizumi's New Year's Day visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine - memorializing World War II dead, including war criminals. The disputed-islands issue adds a new dimension to the problem. The horrific Fukuoka murders have made ordinary Japanese apprehensive about China and more susceptible to the extremist views of ultra-nationalist politicians and the right-wing press.

Additionally, as long as Koizumi maintains his current position - that foreigners have no right to object to memorializing the war dead at the shrine - it seems unlikely that bilateral relations will improve during his tenure in office.

Given the strength of reaction to the islet landing in both countries, it will be some time before the troubled territorial sentiments are calmed, and this increases the risk that bilateral economic ties may suffer as a result. The dispute also opens up a new source of Sino-Japanese tension, complicating an already difficult situation. This creates a volatile situation in both countries, one that Beijing and Tokyo may find difficult to control.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 27 March 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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