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Wave of nationalism

John Blau
September 11, 2012

Rising nationalism in China and Japan is fueling the dispute between China and Japan over a string of islands in the East China Sea, experts say. Yet most expect the two economic powers to resolve their differences.

The survey ship Koyo Maru, left, chartered by Tokyo city officials, sails around Minamikojima, foreground, Kitakojima, middle right, and Uotsuri, background, the tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
Image: AP

The territorial dispute over the barren mini-islands in East Asia has further escalated after China dispatched two patrol boats to the islands in response to a move by Japan to buy three of them from a private Japanese owner.

Japan controls the uninhabited but resource-rich islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan. On Tuesday, the government confirmed a deal to buy three of the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Asserting power

Tension between the two Asian economic powerhouses has been growing for some time as each strives to assert its influence in the region.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called the islands "an inherent part of China's territory" and vowed the country would "never ever yield an inch" on its sovereignty.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao photo:Ng Han Guan/AP/dapd
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao says he won't 'yield an inch'Image: ap

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government was buying the islands it didn't already own "to promote their stable and peaceful management."

Certainly, one of the key reasons for the dispute is economic: The waters are home to heavy shipping lanes, rich fishing and, potentially, vast oil and natural gas reserves.

But experts are quick to point out that national pride plays a huge role, too.

'Unwillingness to curb nationalism'

"Increasing nationalism in both countries is perhaps the most dangerous factor of them all, said, an Asian expert Gauri Khandekar with the European think tank FRIDE. "The tension between them is certainly getting worse."

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) warned of an "unwillingness of both governments to curb nationalism."

Japanese activists wave the national flag in front of a lighthouse on Uotsuri island, Photo:Kyodo News/AP/dapd
Japanese activitists raised flags on one of the islandsImage: AP

Lee-Makiyama pointed to the recent bid by the outspoken and right-wing Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara to buy the islands using public donations as example of the "nationalistic undercurrent" in Japan.

And in China, he told DW, "Nationalism has proven to be a useful policy instrument to rally support for the government."

Military confrontation

Both experts doubt, however, that the current conflict could erupt into a full-blown military confrontation.

"There is much at stake economically," Khandekar told DW. "China is very dependent on Japan."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks during a press conference at the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok, Russia Photo/Jim Watson, ool
Hillary Clinton urges China and Japan to keep talkingImage: dapd

Lee-Makiyama believes the situation will calm down at some point. "It must," he said. "The economic link between China and Japan is too strong to be unsettled by a nationalistic movement."

Help from major powers outside Asia is unlikely, according to Lee-Makiyama.

'Set up a hotline'

"The EU has no geopolitical position," he said. "It has offered its experience in regional integration but admits that Asian integration is completely different."

During her visit to Beijing, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the government's position that Asian countries should resolve their differences peacefully through negotiations.

Khandekar warned that intervention from "external partners could increase tensions in the region." Her advice to China and Japan as tempers flare: "They need to set up a hot line and get talking."

James Manicom, a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation agrees. "These issues could be resolved," he told DW, "if leaders in both China and Japan did a better job of telling their citizens how important the other country is and how unimportant these islands are."

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