China, Japan and Taiwan island dispute could lead to war
China launches aircraft carrier as tensions escalate in the East China Sea
TENSIONS are high in the East China Sea where Japan, China and Taiwan are at loggerheads over the fate of a chain of tiny islands, which the Japanese government claims to have bought, and there are fears that the row could even lead to military confrontation.
A flotilla of vessels from Taiwan sailed into the waters around the islands this morning but were warned off by the Japanese coastguard, while China chose today to officially launch its first aircraft carrier, which could sail straight into an escalating naval dispute.
WHERE ARE THE ISLANDS?
The eight uninhabited islands and outcrops in the East China Sea are known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. They have a total area of only seven square kilometres and lie northeast of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and southwest of Japan's southern-most prefecture, Okinawa. They are marginally closer to Taiwan than the nearest undisputed Japanese territories.
WHO OWNS THEM?
Japan formally annexed the islands in 1895. In the early 20th century an entrepreneur set up a fish processing plant on one of the islands. According to the LA Times the workers "caught fish and collected albatross feathers to adorn women's hats in Europe". The operation was closed in 1940 and the islands have been uninhabited since then, but remained privately owned.
Between 1945 and 1972 the islands were under US government control, and in 1969 potential oil and gas reserves were identified in the region. In 1972 the islands returned to Japanese control, but in the same year the Taiwanese and Chinese governments also began to claim ownership of the islands.
China says the islands have been part of its territory since ancient times and should be administered by Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty. Taiwan claims that it should control the islands, even though neither Japan or China recognise its existence.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?
The islands have huge strategic value because they lie close to important shipping lanes through the South China Sea. According to the Wall Street Journal: "Strategic planners in Tokyo have begun to refer to this chain as the 'southwestern wall', a string of Japanese-held outposts that could be used to block Chinese maritime access to the western Pacific Ocean."
There are also valuable fishing grounds in the area and there could be gas and oil below the seabed. Some observers compare them to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST?
There have been plenty of stand-offs down the years, with regular clashes between Japanese patrols and fishing boats from China and Taiwan. Chinese activists have also visited the islands and in 2004 Japan arrested seven campaigners who landed on the main island.
Tensions rose this year when it became clear that the Japanese wanted to buy the islands from their private owners and matters came to a head earlier this month when the government paid ¥2.05 billion to purchase several of the islands. That prompted China's Foreign Ministry to announce that Beijing would not "sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated".
The move led to anti-Japanese street protests in dozens of cities across China. There were attacks on Japanese businesses, flights between the two countries were slashed and some manufacturers, including Honda and Toyota, suspended their operations in China, while retailers closed down their stores.
There were also calls for China, which is Japan's biggest creditor, to try and cripple the country economically.
WHAT IS NEW?
In the past few days things have become even more tense as China has postponed a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties with Japan. The two countries have held "candid and in-depth" talks in Beijing, according to the Xinhua news agency.
The BBC reports that "Chinese surveillance and fishing boats have also been sailing in and out of waters around the islands in recent days," while a flotilla of 58 ships from Taiwan moved into the waters around the islands this morning. The Japanese coast guard issued warnings to the boats and TV footage showed water being sprayed towards the Taiwanese ships, which left soon afterwards.
China also launched its first aircraft carrier on Tuesday in another show of strength.
COULD IT ESCALATE?
"It is naive to assume the two sides will successfully avoid coming to blows," warns the Wall Street Journal. "The way nationalist passions have been stoked in both countries, particularly China, the possibilities of accident or miscalculation are rising."
Reuters is more circumspect. "The risks of military confrontation are scant," it says. "But political tensions between Asia's two biggest economies could fester and worries persist about an unintended incident at sea."
The Guardian reported that the launch of the aircraft carrier was "a show of naval ambition that could spur regional worries about territorial rows with Japan".