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China-Japan Tussle Over Islands Reflects Broader Tensions

September 8, 1996

BEIJING (AP) _ China and Japan have always been uneasy neighbors. Now, a flimsy lighthouse built atop rocks on a disputed atoll has tensions at their worst in years.

The dispute over the cluster of small islands midway between Okinawa and China is sharpening focus on strains likely to intensify as a strengthening China challenges Japan for the role of Asia’s leading power.

By itself, the 16 1/2-foot-tall aluminum lighthouse is unlikely to leave a lasting mark _ a typhoon tilted it shortly after it was erected in July. But its construction by Japanese rightists galvanized nationalist sentiment against Japan throughout greater China _ the Communist mainland, Taiwan and the British colony of Hong Kong.

China filed another protest with Japan last week, while angry Taiwanese burned a Japanese flag. Meanwhile, the Japanese coast guard was kept busy shooing Taiwanese boats away from the islands.

On Sunday, a group of 17 Chinese in Beijing formed an organization without their government’s approval to protest what they said were the Japanese incursions. In Hong Kong, thousands marched to protest Japan’s claim, and in Taiwan the opposition New Party, which favors reunification with China, announced plans to form an alliance of Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas to mobilize opposition to Japan’s claim.

The atoll _ known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu in China _ is about 110 miles northeast of Taiwan, which also claims the islands. Taiwan itself is viewed by Beijing as a renegade province.

Japan claimed the uninhabited islands in 1895. The United States ran them for 27 years after World War II, returning them to Japan, along with Okinawa, in 1972.

The conflicting claims were quietly shelved. But now tempers are rising as both countries seek to shore up their claims, partly out of nationalism, partly for potential marine and mineral resources.

The lighthouse’s construction drew a harsh reaction from Beijing, which demanded that Japan remove it as a violation of China’s sovereignty.

``While China concentrates on sorting out its own domestic issues, insists on shelving territorial disputes and advocates cooperative development, we see escalating Japanese provocation,″ the official China Daily said Friday. ``It is very clear who is sabotaging peace and stability in the Asian-Pacific region.″

Taiwan, which was menaced by Chinese war games earlier this year, urged Beijing to stop lobbing missiles and cooperate in contesting Japan’s claim.

Even among the usually indifferent residents of Hong Kong, which is reverting to Chinese rule next July 1, there have been small but vociferous protests. Several hundred demonstrators pursued Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda when he visited the British colony last week.

``There still remains in Hong Kong, as in China, a residual dislike of Japanese territorial claims. The anti-Japanese feeling is still there,″ said Professor Elfed Roberts, a political scientist at Hong Kong University.

Japan, usually reluctant to rile Beijing and revive the ghosts of its own militarist past, has been uncharacteristically defiant.

``There is no question historically and under international law that the islands are our country’s native territory,″ said the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Two weeks after the lighthouse went up, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto further infuriated China by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, a Tokyo memorial to Japan’s war dead, including executed war criminals.

Hashimoto’s actions reflect his own relative hawkishness on war-related recriminations, as well as Japanese concern about China’s growing military might and assertiveness. This year’s annual report by Japan’s Defense Agency portrays China as its biggest threat.

In recent years, China and Japan seemed to make progress in putting the bitterness from World War II to rest. But it has returned to center stage with the rise of Hashimoto.

``From the Chinese point of view, he is very arrogant. But many Japanese bureaucrats and others support his point of view,″ said Masatake Takahashi, a Japanese analyst of international affairs.

``Before, Japan was more intimidated by Beijing. Now, Hashimoto and his supporters think sometimes Japan should say `No’ to China. The more he does it, the more popular he gets,″ Takahashi said.

Likewise, Chinese President Jiang Zemin has found nationalism plays well with his public and the military, whose support is vital.

Having alarmed its neighbors with war games off Taiwan’s shores, Beijing is eager to shift attention elsewhere, said Bob Broadfoot, director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong.

China, he said, ``is trying to build bridges and put on a softer face, while at the same time trying to deflect attention from China as a potential threat by saying the threat is really Japan.″

Japan has likewise said it does not want to provoke China, although it is adamant the islands belong to Tokyo.

``The island is under the effective control of Japan,″ Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ken Shimanouchi said Friday. ``But we do not want any tension to increase in the area.″

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