News / Asia

Nationalism Fuels Japan-China Island Dispute

Chinese protesters hold banners reading "Declare war against Japan" and "Japan get out of Diaoyu islands" during a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing Aug. 15, 2012. Chinese protesters hold banners reading "Declare war against Japan" and "Japan get out of Diaoyu islands" during a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing Aug. 15, 2012.
Chinese protesters hold banners reading "Declare war against Japan" and "Japan get out of Diaoyu islands" during a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing Aug. 15, 2012.
Chinese protesters hold banners reading "Declare war against Japan" and "Japan get out of Diaoyu islands" during a protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing Aug. 15, 2012.
An escalating dispute between Japan and China over an island chain in the East China Sea is focusing attention on increasingly nationalistic moves by the rival Asian powers.  Experts say the governments in Beijing and Tokyo are reacting to new domestic challenges as well as to long-running grievances of their nationalist movements.

The latest escalation in the dispute started in April, when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he had begun negotiations to buy four of the archipelago's five islands from a Japanese family that has owned them for decades.  The islands are named Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Japanese steps

Ishihara, a prominent nationalist, said he wants to ensure the islands remain under the sovereignty of Japan, which annexed them unilaterally in 1895.  Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda later said the central government also was talking to the Kurihara family about buying the islands.

When a group of Chinese activists sailed to the islands on August 15 to emphasize China's sovereignty claim, Japan detained and deported them.  Four days later, Tokyo appeared to allow a group of Japanese nationalists to land on the chain's main island, despite having warned them to stay away.

Japan's moves can be explained in part as a reaction to the prospect of a deal between the Kurihara family and the Tokyo governor.

Reacting to negotiations

Japanese media said the Kuriharas have been under pressure to sell the islands because of heavy debts.  They bought the islands, known individually in Japanese as Uotsuri, Kita, Minami and Kuba, from another family in 1978, before leasing them to the government in 2002.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara of the University of Tokyo said the Kurihara family also is nationalistic and has apparent "misgivings" about the level of the ruling party's commitment to Japanese control of the islands.

Fujiwara said Japanese nationalists were upset when the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009 and advocated a "cozy" relationship with China, which insists the islands were Chinese territory long before Japan's annexation.

Japanese media said Tokyo governor Ishihara's bid to buy the islands has worried Noda's central administration, with some officials warning China could react angrily if Ishihara succeeds.

The officials said a central government purchase of the islands could reduce the risk.

Japanese nationalist grievances

Fujiwara, an international relations expert, said Japanese nationalists also worry about what they see as aggressive Chinese actions in other disputed waters.

"Many Chinese fishing boats have been operating in waters [claimed by] the Philippines and Vietnam [around] the Spratley islands," he said. "There is this fear that the Chinese now are about to claim territorial control [of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands] and also use them for their own purposes."

Bonnie Glaser, a China studies expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Japan's ruling party is listening to the nationalists because it has weakened public support and may be forced to call early elections this year.

"They are trying to respond to the demands of their people and at the same time trying to manage relations with their neighbors," she said. "They are not doing a very good job of it at the moment."

Tensions have persisted between Japan and China since September 2010, when a Chinese trawler entered the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels.  Japanese authorities detained the Chinese captain for about two weeks, infuriating China, which stopped exporting rare earth materials to Japan and suspended political and cultural exchanges.

Chinese moves

China's more recent actions also reflect growing nationalism. After Japanese activists landed on the islands August 19, Beijing lodged a protest with Tokyo and for the first time in years allowed thousands of people to join anti-Japanese street protests in major cities.

The Chinese government also gave diplomatic support to the Chinese activists who landed on the islands this month, denouncing Japan's detention of them and demanding their unconditional release.

Domestic political challenges

Chinese leaders are facing new domestic challenges, including preparations for a 2012 Communist Party congress aimed at approving a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

"I think the Chinese leadership is very nervous about being seen as weak (in the run up to the Congress) and not defending China's territorial integrity," Glaser said.

The Chinese government also has been trying to focus national attention away from allegations of corruption and abuse of power involving a prominent former Communist Party official, Bo Xilai.

Rory Medcalf of Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy said Chinese assertiveness on the islands also reflects deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment.

China's nationalism entrenched

"[This] nationalism has been there for a long time in China, [and)] has been fostered by the Communist Party and is now getting harder to control, partly because of social media," said Medcalf.

Glaser of CSIS said many Chinese nationalists have taken to the Internet to express anger toward Japan and criticize their government for not doing more to defend China's sovereignty. Beijing began asserting its claim to the islands in 1971, two years after a U.N. study showed a potential for oil in the area.

Medcalf said the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have become such a focus of national pride in both China and Japan that the two governments feel compelled to react to perceived provocations by nationalists of the other side.

"There is a really unpleasant action-reaction dynamic here, and the only hope we have is that governments can see sense and manage public opinion in both countries to try to prevent a wider diplomatic crisis," he said.

Victor Beattie contributed to this report.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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Comment Sorting
by: Hwang He from: Taiwan
September 12, 2012 11:57 AM
Nationalism? More likely RABID nationalism all the way around. These tiny islands have next to no utility in terms of their own resources, it is the areas around them that inspire great greed as the ocean floor offers minerals and energy and the water is abundant with fish.

Sadly, as China has been evolving into a first class economic powerhouse, it seems to want to revisit old grievances of the 20th and 19th centuries rather than acknowledge that the Ocidental powers offered new trade, new industries, and new technologies as an olive branch so that this type of problem might now occur.

The fact is that China seems to be historically deprived of the real hardships and pitfalls of going to war for glory and national pride. The bonfires of vanity are burning brightly as they ape what Germany, Mother Russia, and Japan have tried to pull off on the world stage.

What you have is 1.2 billion frogs in a well thinking they know what the outside world is truly like. Maybe they even believe that there is a rabbit on the moon and a pill for eternal life.

The oceans of the world and its resources belong to all the people of the world and just because someone prefers to extend a rather foggy view of history doesn't fit the modern world. It is time for a good multilateral policy to evolve on the seas of Southeast Asia before threats become real attacks on neighboring nations.

And Mainland China needs to allow its citizens full access to real history of the past two centuries (So d0 Japan, N. Korea, and S. Korea).

It all seems to revisit the kind of national fiction that allowed the Nazis of Germany to run amok.

by: Wangchuk from: NY
August 24, 2012 12:31 PM
Increasingly the PRC resembles Imperial Japan just prior to WWII. The PRC is increasingly nationalistic, jingoistic & chauvinistic towards other countries. PRC rhetoric claims they are being unfairly treated by other countries & claim to be persecuted by the West. PRC also doesn't respect individual rights & opposes democracy. And the PRC doesn't believe many of the int'l rules & norms don't apply to them & have cultivated a culture of exceptionalism.
In Response

by: Luke from: MD
September 11, 2012 6:51 PM
Please read history before making conclusion. You can refer to

PRC is not what you think. Japan invaded China before and during WWII. The Senkaku islands were lost to Japan along with Taiwan island. After WWII, Taiwan was returned to China but senkaku was still occupied by US administration.

There is a really dispute on this island. As a Chinese, I would rather hope the island never exist because I love peace. I hate to see war between peoples who should be friend to each other. But don't disgrace China by ignorance.
In Response

by: Henry
September 03, 2012 9:26 AM
Why don't you see that behind all these countries there is a country supporting them. This country is afraid of China progress and hope the war between the China and Japan.

Democracy in China takes time to get in shape; in the mean time, do you think you get all democracy and freedom you want here in US? Get educated!

by: Thomas from: New zealand
August 23, 2012 9:03 AM
What has happend in the past, that`s history! don`t start that again, the subject now is . why would you make such a big drama over what citizens do! Both countries claim the islands. go back in the historybooks and you will find out that they belong to Japan. That simple it is . Only ofcourse then there is China, The country that slowly takes over the world , This might be the start of something really stupid ..!
In Response

by: Hwang He from: Taiwan
September 12, 2012 12:06 PM
Going back to whose history books? China destroyed much of its history in the Cultural Revolution, implemented a new Simplified Chinese so that its own people cannot read anything of history before the PRC without advanced education, and limits access to vast information resources outside its own country.

As best as I can figure out, Ching Dynasty gave these islands to Japan in 1895 when Taiwan was handed over to Japanese colonial rule. Japan unconditionally surrendered to the USA. At the end of WWII, the USA allowed the KMT to take over Taiwan and Japan to keep these islands.

This is documented history.
In Response

by: Jack from: USA
September 07, 2012 5:00 AM
The island belongs to Taiwan before the war between Japan and China around 1884 if you can do a little bit reseach. China was lost the war,so as the island. Japan was agreed to should return the island back to China after defeated in WWII. Japan became US's friend during Korea War, and China (Communist Party) became US's enamy. Also there is a issue, the island should give back to China, but Taiwan (also US's friend) will not be happy. It will angry China if the island gave to Taiwan. That is why US only gave Japan (also US's friend) the administer rights of the island, but not the property right. That is the fact and history.

Also you may know Taiwan is a province of China. Old Gov fleed to Taiwen after defeated in civil war by Chinese Communist Party in 1949. US sent army to protect Taiwan from Chinese Communist Party when Korea war started.

I think (don't know too much facts) the island dispute between Japan and Korea should belong to Korea, and the island dispute between Japan and Russia should belong to Japan.
In Response

by: Alexs from: Canada
August 24, 2012 6:17 AM
Go back in the history books and you will find out that they belong to China, although in japanese books. That simple it is. Only of course then there have been Japan, the country that have invaded several counties ,and have killed so many people, but now deny that. Do you think you have the right to say others?Where is the evidence ?Salute to German and they have the courage to acknowledge the history.Shame on you, Japanese!!!!!

by: Henry Chiang from: Washington
August 23, 2012 7:48 AM
Bonnie Glaser is a good commentator, who is also a China and Asia expert on the area. She has good studies on the subject.
Seems that Chinese authorities are trying to utilize the situation to avert public attention from domestic troubles onto "Foreign Affairs".
In Response

by: Anonymous
September 12, 2012 8:47 PM
Please name them since I do not see any ergent domestic trouble at this time in China. I live in China.

by: wonton from: u.s.a
August 22, 2012 8:26 PM
Watch! Communist china is going to spread news that N. korea is about to launch test nuclear weapons and only they can stop it to force Japan and the U.S to give in to their demands on the islands issues!!!
Never fall for their dirty tricks!!!
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 22, 2012 11:38 PM
world war I broke out in 1914 ,world war II broke out in 1939, now it is 2012, time for another world war, the problem is whether the USA is willing to sacrifice all benefits from china, just to be on japan's side. i am holding my breath
In Response

by: T from: u.s
August 22, 2012 10:09 PM
So Right, Buisness as Normal

by: Jonathan Huang from: canada
August 22, 2012 7:33 PM
Japan is a loser of WWII, however Japan is still worshipping those war criminals in a shrine, what a shame!
Japan need to apologize seriously for its war crimes to all Asian nations.
Japan's territory only includes 4 main islands base on the treaty.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 26, 2012 8:43 PM
Stop acting like a Chinese and you know you are not. China is right and Japan is wrong. It's that simple!
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 26, 2012 8:41 PM
Stop acting you are Chinese and you know you are not. China is right and Japan is wrong. It's that simple!
In Response

by: Alex from: USA
August 24, 2012 2:47 AM
Sure, Japan committed plenty of atrocious acts during WWII, but what they've contributed to humanity in the years since should be enough to make up for it. I am Chinese and I support Japan.
In Response

by: Catherine
August 23, 2012 12:58 AM
Absoutely ! Japan should apologize for its crime in WWII !
In Response

by: T from: USA
August 22, 2012 10:00 PM
Thee only ones that believe what you said , Are bitter and disgraced..Japan will never bow to this,NEVER.....

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