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UPDATED: August 27, 2012 NO. 35 AUGUST 30, 2012
Small Islands, Big Stakes

Japan's moves to seize the Diaoyu Islands have aroused the ire of the Chinese. Activists from Hong Kong, indignant about repeated provocations—especially Japanese politicians' vows to "nationalize" the islands in recent months—landed on one of the isles to assert China's sovereignty on August 15, the 67th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.

The Diaoyu Islands, which lie in the East China Sea 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, have been on China's official atlas for centuries. In coastal defense maps drawn in 1561 and 1621, Chinese generals marked the islands as outposts against attacks from Japanese pirates. Defeated in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, China was forced to cede the islands, along with Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago, to Japan. While Taiwan and the Penghu Archipelago were returned following the end of World War II, the Diaoyu Islands, which were geographically affiliated to Taiwan, were wrongfully incorporated into the Ryukyu zone under U.S. control. The United States later transferred the jurisdiction of the islands to Japan.

When China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations in 1972, leaders of the two countries agreed to set aside differences over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands to clear the way for a renewed relationship. The Chinese Government has since taken a prudent stance on this issue in the hope that the territorial spat will not hinder progress in Sino-Japanese relations. China has also proposed the idea that the two neighbors could explore possibilities to jointly develop resources in disputed areas before deep-seated rows over sovereignty are settled. Joint development efforts may lead to enhanced mutual trust and understanding, which China believes are conducive to the delivery of a solution.

The Japanese authorities, however, have ignored China's plea. To the disappointment of the Chinese side, they have continued to stoke disputes in an attempt to annex the islands as part of their efforts to expand the island country's strategic frontiers. These efforts are also evidenced by Japan's conflicting territorial claims over a number of islands with South Korea and Russia.

Japanese right-wing groups, which are gaining momentum against the backdrop of ongoing economic and political woes in Japan, have only added fuel to the tensions. Chinese analysts believe they are bent on playing up territorial disputes with Japan's neighbors with the ulterior motive of soliciting public support for their cause. They are the same group that clings to extreme nationalism and refuses to repent for Japan's atrocities during World War II. To prevent further damage to Sino-Japanese relations, the Japanese authorities should heed China's opinion, take a long-term view and refrain from yielding to dangerous right-wing sentiments.

It is also important that the United States, the country that sowed the seeds for discord out of Cold War considerations, makes a sober-minded judgment. Setbacks in relations between China and Japan, the two biggest economies of Asia with pivotal roles to play in many global issues, are bound to take a toll on the regional economy as well as peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, a prospect that does not serve U.S. interests at all.

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