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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

East China Sea Islands Dispute Rooted In Natural Resources, Nationalism

Agnus Dei Farrant |
September 18, 2012 | 12:38 a.m. PDT

Deputy Editor

(Creative Commons).
(Creative Commons).
Protests in China have spread and become increasingly violent against Japanese diplomats and businesses since the Sept. 11 announcement that the Japanese central government purchased East China Sea islands both countries and Taiwan claim to own.  

Thousands protested outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, the Financial Times reported. Protesters carried placards calling for China to attack Japan with missiles, some called for a boycott of Japanese goods and Japanese-owned businesses have been looted.

This is far from the first time the countries have tussled over the islands. The uninhabited rocky islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have been disputed over for more than 100 years. 

T.J. Pempel, professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley, said that China would claim, historically, it was the first country to ever map the islands. 

“China, during that time period in the late 19th century, didn’t think of terms of boundaries or planting a flag and saying, ‘we control this and the governor of [one of our provinces] will be responsible,’” Pempel said. 

The Japanese, conversely, argue that Okinawans knew about the islands for a long time. Pempel said the issue isn’t which country saw it first but who administered it. Japan gained control of the territory as a result of the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895, when Taiwan went under Japanese control.

“The Chinese would say [Japan] was supposed to give all those territories back,” Pempel said. “But during the U.S. occupation of Japan, the Americans basically included those currently debated islands as part of the Okinawan area that the U.S. administered, not part of Taiwan which went back to…China.”

The U.S. put Okinawa under Japanese control in 1972. 

Pempel said the dispute involves the natural resources in the territory and nationalism from both countries: China and its military feeling powerful and Japan considering China an economic competitor. 

Additionally, a conservative Japanese mayor may have pushed Japan into announcing the national government's purchase that angered the Chinese.

"Within Japan, some of the more conservative guys, including the mayor of Tokyo, said Tokyo was going to buy the islands," Pempel said. "So the Japanese government stepped in and bought the islands from the current owners. I think the national government is trying to diffuse the situation. It’s not interested in seeing this become a big dispute between China and Japan whereas the mayor of Tokyo - who’s somewhat of a right-wing, rather contentious individual - would like nothing better than to thumb his nose at the Chinese."

With the current protests in China, Japanese businesses have temporarily closed stores and stopped factory operations throughout China to avoid being targeted and ensure employee safety, the Financial Times reported.

Employees were warned to use extra caution, The Wall Street Journal reported. Fast Retailing closed its stores and told its 200 Japanese employees at its Uniqlo stores in China to stay home Tuesday. Panasonic suggested its Japanese employees not take taxis alone and avoid speaking Japanese loudly in the streets, a Beijing-based spokesman told The Wall Street Journal

“[Okinawa and Senkaku-Diaoyu] were not subject to much challenge by any other country including China until folks discovered there might be natural resources underneath it including oil and gas,” Pempel said. “And Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader, said that basically, [China] didn’t care about these islands until it discovered that there was the possibility it could get rich by controlling them.”


Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage on the East China Sea islands here.

Reach Deputy Editor Agnus Dei Farrant here.



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