Choppy seas

Relations between China and Japan have soured considerably in recent weeks, following Japan’s detention of the captain of Chinese fishing boat near disputed islands. In order to pile on pressure on Japan to release the detained captain, Beijing has snapped high-level contacts with Japan and even halted crucial exports to the country. A war of words has broken out between the two countries with statements by politicians and officials stoking hostile public sentiment. China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao has warned of ‘further action.’ While the immediate provocation for the ongoing spat is the collision two weeks ago of a Chinese fishing boat with two Japanese patrol ships, its roots go back to a festering territorial dispute between the two countries. The collision happened near some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China, over which Japan, China and Taiwan lay claim. Together the islands cover just 7 sq km of land. Their value is in their location near strategically important shipping lanes. Besides, these islands are believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits as well.

This is not the first time that a fracas has erupted that is linked to the contending claims over the islands. Whenever activists of one or the other country have sought to sail to the islands in a bid to cement their country’s claims to it, tensions have grown. However, this time temperatures have been raised to a much higher level, which is worrying. As with some of its other territorial disputes with its neighbours, China’s approach to the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has been to put off settlement of the dispute to a future generation. In the current face-off, Japan seems to have acted aggressively in detaining the Chinese captain. However, Beijing’s response too appears excessive. But this strong response should not be seen in isolation. China has been taking a tough posture in asserting its claims over disputed islands and waters in the East and South China Seas in recent months.

The confrontationist positions being taken by the two governments seem aimed at appeasing hardliners at home. However angry words can quickly slide to hostile actions. This is in nobody’s interest. Japan can defuse the situation by releasing the captain.

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