China sends patrol ships to contested islands after Japan buys them
by Chico Harlan and Jia Lynn Yang, Published: September 11
by Chico Harlan and Jia Lynn Yang, Published: September 11
Ng Han Guan/AP - Chinese protesters gather outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday. Chinese government ships are patrolling near contested East China Sea islands in a show of anger after Japan moved to assert its control in the area.
TOKYO — China on Tuesday sent two patrol ships to waters near a remote and disputed island chain in a show of its “undisputable sovereignty,” Chinese state media said, escalating a territorial showdown between Asia’s two largest economies.
The move came as a direct response to Japan’s nationalization of the uninhabited islands, finalized Tuesday when the central government’s cabinet approved a $26.2 million purchase of the land from a private Japanese owner.
“We are watching closely the evolution of the situation and reserve the right to take reciprocal measures,” said Geng Yansheng, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, according to Beijing’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Japanese government officials have made the case that the purchase should do little to fray ties with Beijing; Japan’s government previously rented the land and tightly controlled it, allowing landing permission to almost nobody.
The purchase, one government spokesman said Tuesday, will ensure “stable peace and maintenance” of the land, which is also claimed by Taiwan. The uninhabited islands are significant because they occupy precious shipping lanes and may contain oil deposits.
“It’s important to avoid any misunderstanding by the Chinese government,” said the spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura.
But China has reacted with fury, and the two countries, which both view the islands as a symbol of nationalist pride, have pushed each other to a tense standoff — one that raises the potential for small-scale armed conflict, some security experts say.
To counter the Chinese ships, Japan sent a coast guard patrol vessel to the area, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday said the United States’ position on the dispute remains “that we want to see China and Japan work this through.”
A Xinhua editorial called Japan’s decision to nationalize the islands “ridiculous and absurd” and an “open provocation against China.” Sending the patrol ships from China Marine Surveillance — one of 11 loosely regulated agencies or paramilitary groups China has used in its increasingly aggressive push for control of the East China and South China seas, according to a recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group — “is timely and necessary,” the editorial continued. “The action dealt a big blow to the inflated swagger of Japan.”
The report from Brussels said the marine surveillance unit “enjoys considerable independence outside the government’s power structure” and has been involved in clashes with Philippine and Vietnamese ships.
Japan and China have conflicting narratives about the history of the islands, known in Japanese as Senkaku and Chinese as Diaoyu. Japan, which has controlled the rocky outcroppings for four decades, says China showed interest in the territory only after studies suggested a bounty of natural resources in the nearby waters. Beijing, meanwhile, says the land has been China’s since “ancient times,” discovered and named by Chinese people and appearing on Chinese maps drafted centuries ago.
“China will take any necessary measures to uphold its national territorial sovereignty,” Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said during a regular news briefing Tuesday. “We demand that the Japanese let go of its wrong actions and come back to the negotiating table to resolve the Diaoyu islands issue.”
The low-simmering territorial dispute began to boil in April, when Tokyo’s nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, told a think tank in Washington of his city’s plan to nationalize the islands. Japan’s central government, fearing that Ishihara would directly confront China if he bought the land, decided to launch its own bid — a move designed to decrease tensions, not raise them.
But China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday denounced the purchase as a “gross violation” of Chinese sovereignty. Premier Wen Jiabao told university students in Beijing that China “will never budge, even half an inch, over the sovereignty and territorial issue.”
Many Chinese citizens view Japan’s claim to Diaoyu as a land grab akin to the country’s brutal invasion of China before and during World War II. The wounds from that war are still raw for some. Just this week, five Chinese citizens sued the Japanese government for bombing Chongqing between 1930 and 1944, demanding a worldwide apology from Japan.
On Tuesday afternoon, about 50 young protesters gathered in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, pumping their fists at the front door and chanting that Japan was illegally claiming the contested islands.
“Diaoyu has always been China’s,” said Li Jie, one of the protesters. “If the [Chinese] government wants to go to war, I’ll join the military.”
There have been other land-based flare-ups in the past several years but perhaps none as tense as this one. It comes as China’s profile in the world is rising steadily and Japan’s diminishes. Nationalists in Japan have seized on this sense of insecurity to wage their claims on the islands.
Both China and Japan have signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of Sea, which says that countries control territory within 12 nautical miles from their coastline and have exclusive economic rights within 200 nautical miles of their coastline. The islands Japan has purchased are 200 nautical miles from both China and Japan. China on Monday released a detailed list of latitudes and longitudes marking its definition of its boundaries — a sign to some observers that the dispute is escalating.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said Japan’s remote islands are essential for marking the country’s “exclusive economic zone.” Japan is the 61st-largest country in the world according to land mass, Noda said, but the sixth-largest based on the size of the ocean it manages.
“What makes Japan such an expansive maritime nation is our over 6,800 remote islands, including Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands,” Noda said.
South Korea also claims Takeshima.
“We’d never see a total war” between China and Japan, said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo. “But we could see a small-scale conflict. We saw a clash in 2010” — when Japanese and Chinese boats collided and Japan detained a Chinese fishing captain — “and we will possibly see a harsher clash soon.”
Yang reported from Beijing. Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report
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Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea
Key moments in the territorial disputes and intermittent skirmishes.
1946: China claims Spratly Islands
China declares the Spratly Islands part of Guangdong province.
1951: Japan's Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida signs a security treaty, giving the United States the right to maintain air, land, and land military bases in and about Japan. (AP)
Japan officially relinquishes empire
The Treaty of San Francisco, signed by Japan and a host of Allied powers, officially ends World War II and Japan’s empire, annulling all of Japan’s claims to the South China Sea Islands. However, no official resolution is reached on sovereignty over the Spratlys.
1974: Vietnamese protesters carry a banner with a Vietnamese slogan reading, "Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands belong to Vietnam," during a protest demanding China to stay out of their waters in Hanoi, Vietnam. (AP)
China captures Paracel Islands
China seizes military installations occupied by South Vietnam’s armed forces in the Paracel Islands and reasserts its claims of sovereignty over the Spratlys.
1988: Vietnamese sailors killed in skirmish with China
Tensions between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea boil over after 70 Vietnamese sailors are killed in a naval battle between the two nations near the Spratlys.
1991: Maj. Gen. Reynaldo Reyes, commander of the Philippines' Western Command, points to the area where Chinese navy ships were spotted, during a briefing in Palawan, 360 miles southwest of Manila. (AP)
China invokes international law to expand sea territory
China passes the “Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of the Republic of China,” evoking principles from the United Nations’ definition of territorial waters to formalize its claim to the Paracels and Spratlys.
1995: A Chinese flag flies from one of the two newly-finished concrete structures on the Mischief Reef off the disputed Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea. (AP)
China captures Philippine military installments
China occupies the Philippines-claimed Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, just over 130 miles off the Philippine coast. The reef is roughly 700 miles from China’s nearest island, Hainan, and well inside the Philippines' “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), a term first used in the United Nations’ Law of the Sea.
Manila sees China threat on coral reef
May 2000: Philippine Defense Chief Orlando Mercado showed this photograph of a Chinese fishing boat with a big load of sea corals taken off the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the Spratlys group of islands. (AP)
Phillipine troops kill Chinese fisherman, arrest seven
A Chinese fisherman is killed and seven others arrested by Philippine troops near the island of Palawan after they crossed into Philippine territorial waters.
June 2011: Chinese marines walk by the monument mark on the Yongshu Skerry of Nansha islands, South China Sea. The Nansha Islands are also known as the Spratlys. (AP)
U.S. Senate condemns China's use of force in South China Sea
A U.S. Senate resolution unanimously condemns China’s use of force in the South China Sea conflict and calls for an international solution to the territorial disputes. China rejects the Senate resolution, reasserting its sovereignty over all of the South China Sea and its desire to negotiate with the six nations involved in the conflict.
In South China Sea, every side has its say
July 2011: A U.S. Navy fighter attack aircraft lands on the deck of USS George Washington, off southern coast of Vietnam in South China Sea. (AP)
U.S., Vietnam engage in joint naval drills
The United States and Vietnam conduct a series naval drills in the South China Sea in response to China's growing assertiveness in the region.
U.S., Vietnam in exercises amid tensions with China
October 2011: The first deep-water drilling rig developed in China, is pictured at 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong in the South China Sea. (AP)
Gas giant discovers oil field off Vietnam's coast
Energy giant Exxon Mobil discovers oil off the coast of central Vietnam, a section of the South China Sea that lies within the area claimed by China. The discovery prompts Philippine and Vietnamese leaders to agree to reinforce their maritime cooperation in the region.
In South China Sea, a dispute over energy
November 2011: President Barack Obama poses with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao for a photo before the East Asia Summit Gala dinner in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia. (AP)
U.S., ASEAN lambast China on South China Sea policy
The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, press China at the Sixth East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, over maritime security in the South China Sea, chiefly China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the area.
Obama heads to Asia
December 2011: A photo shows Chinese aircraft carrier Varyag sailing in the Yellow Sea, approximately 63 miles south-southeast of the port of Dalian, China. (AP)
China launches aircraft carrier
Satellite images reveal China’s first aircraft carrier, Varyag, sailing in the Yellow Sea.
First satellite image of Chinese aircraft carrier
June 2012: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta walks with Indian Minister of Defense A.K. Anthony during a welcoming ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in New Delhi, India. (AP)
U.S. announces shift in naval deployment toward Asia
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lays out the United States' plans to revamp its naval deployment across the world’s oceans during his visit to Asia, shifting from a 50-50 split between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to 60 percent in the Pacific by 2020.
Panetta seeks to lend heft to U.S. pivot to Asia
GRAPHIC: Anup Kaphle and Benjamin Gottlieb - The Washington Post. Published June 8, 2012.
SOURCE: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Center for Strategic & International Studies, Middlebury College, Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Reuters]