Tensions Flare in East China Sea after Shrine Visit

Tensions are again rising in the waters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, following several Japanese politicians’ visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine over the weekend. The Chinese government condemned the visit to the shrine, which honors the war dead from World War II, including those executed as war criminals for atrocities committed in China. On Tuesday, a fleet of eight Chinese patrol boats entered the waters around the disputed islands, which are currently under Japan’s control but also claimed by China. The same day, 10 boats carrying Japanese ultranationalist activists arrived off the islands. From the New York Times:

On Tuesday, that dispute appeared to heat up even further when the Japanese Coast Guard reported that eight Chinese patrol ships had entered waters near the islands, the largest number to appear at one time since the dispute flared up last summer. The Coast Guard said the Chinese ships converged from several different directions into waters near the uninhabited islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The Chinese ships appeared at the same time as 10 boats carrying members of a Japanese fringe ultranationalist group also arrived off the islands. The boats were followed by Japanese Coast Guard ships apparently seeking to ensure that they did not attempt a landing, as some nationalists did last summer.

Beijing lodged a formal protest with Tokyo over the activists’ visit. From Reuters:

Beijing protested over the voyage by 10 boats carrying about 80 Japanese activists into waters near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

“Regarding the Japanese right-wing activists’ illegal entry into the waters of the Diaoyu islands that is causing trouble, the Chinese foreign ministry has lodged stern representations with Japan, and has strongly protested,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference.

Japan also protested at what it called an intrusion by eight Chinese patrol vessels into its waters near the uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands, which are near rich fishing grounds and potentially lucrative maritime gas fields.

Global Times fanned the flames of outrage at Japan’s actions in an editorial condemning the Yasukuni visit:

These visits represented the most conspicuous efforts to glorify Japanese war dead since former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006.

Abe is skirting the edge of a red line. He didn’t make a pilgrimage himself, but offered equipment for ceremonies and sent his deputy prime minister. This marks a significant step, which has left Beijing and Seoul little room for diplomatic maneuvers and little choice but to show their firm resolve.

The controversial visits once again prove that Japan is the troublemaker and provocateur in East Asia. Japan has once again been the one that broke the uneasy regional balance.

By Tuesday evening, it appeared that the Japanese activists had left the immediate area:


For its part, the Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called in the Chinese ambassador to lodge a complaint about the movement of the patrol boats and threatened the use of force if Chinese boats landed on the islands. From Japan Today:

Tokyo summoned the Chinese ambassador to Japan on Tuesday after the eight state-owned Chinese ships sailed into its territorial waters. The flotilla is the biggest to sail into the disputed waters in a single day since Tokyo nationalised part of the archipelago in September.

Abe vowed to “expel by force” any Chinese landing on the archipelago in the East China Sea.

“We would take decisive action against any attempt to enter territorial waters and to land” on the islands, Abe told parliament in response to questions from lawmakers, adding: “We would never allow” a landing.

“It would be natural for us to expel by force if (the Chinese) were to make a landing,” he said.

Prime Minister Abe, who came to office in a landslide in 2012 on a right-wing nationalist platform, is now trying to balance his nationalist agenda with popular demands for him to fix the faltering economy and with the need to engage with China. From the South China Morning Post:

The prime minister, who has said he regretted not visiting Yasukuni during his 2006-2007 term in office, has been walking a fine line between talking tough in the territorial row over the chain of rocky islets and leaving the door open for dialogue with Beijing.

Voters want Abe to put priority on fixing the economy rather than other issues close to Abe’s heart, such as revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, an opinion poll showed this week.

Repercussions from the current dispute are being felt throughout the region. From the Wall Street Journal:

On Monday, South Korea responded to the war-shrine visits by canceling a planned visit to Tokyo by its foreign minister, where the two nations were to discuss cooperation over the North Korea crisis. This followed the news last week that China had decided to skip an annual trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea scheduled in late May, damping hopes for renewed regional dialogue.

Last year, violent protests flared up in several Chinese cities after the Japanese government announced its plan to purchase some of the disputed islands from their private owners.

Read more about the Diaoyu Islands and China-Japan relations, via CDT.

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