Troubled waters

The East China Sea is simmering with tension. A long-standing dispute between China, Japan and Taiwan over a string of islands escalated recently with the Japanese government purchasing the islands from a private Japanese owner.

The idea for it came from the rabidly anti-Chinese governor of Tokyo. It was soon adopted by the Japanese government, which went ahead with the purchase despite its international ramifications. The altering of the status quo has raised hackles in China, which has responded by sending surveillance ships into the area.

Angry words have been exchanged and this could quickly turn into an exchange of fire since vessels of the two countries are aggressively patrolling the disputed waters. Known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, the islands are under Japanese control; Tokyo had rented the islands till recently when it purchased them. Beijing claims the islands to be an ‘inherent part of its territory since ancient times.’

The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are close to vital shipping lanes and lie in waters that are rich in fish and believed to contain oil deposits. More important than the economic value of the islands is their central place in the nationalist discourse of the two countries. Japan’s action needled China.

The latter’s response was to be expected, not only because Beijing sees the dispute as ‘unfinished business’ but also in the context of China’s recent robust assertion of sovereignty over its disputed island territories.

The escalating tensions in East Asia will provide the US with an excuse to ‘return to Asia.’ With the US presidential election entering its last couple of months, candidates will want to impress voters with their ‘pro-activeness’ in the East China Sea. American officials and analysts are already saying that if China acts to assert its sovereignty over the islands, the US would be obliged under Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security to intervene on Japan’s behalf. Such talk could warm the hearts of American and Japanese hardliners. However, it will only escalate an already serious situation.

The brush-off that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton received from her Chinese hosts recently is a pointer to how China feels about Washington’s needless meddling in Asian affairs. The US will be biting off more than it can chew by entering East Asia’s troubled waters.

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