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Date Posted: 10:34 25/03/2004

Fishing for trouble

The kerfuffle on Diaoyu Island stirs up more national indignation

IN A WEEK when the rogue province of Taiwan held a divisive and disputed election, the local press has again been whipped into a frenzy over yet another challenge to China's unalienable sovereignty, this time on the tiny and unpopulated Diaoyu (Fishing) Islands, also known as the Senkaku.

In Beijing today, 200 people gathered around the Japanese embassy to protest against the arrest of seven activists, detained by a Japanese patrol after they had planted Chinese flags on the islands.

Unlike the Spratlys in the South China Sea, Diaoyu has stirred up a large amount of national indignation over the years, mainly because the territorial dispute involves the perennial bete noire of Japan. Patriotic youth groups from both sides have been sailing out for years to stake their claims, plant their flags, and shout insults at the enemy.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, a team of 16 'volunteers'' set off in a fishing boat from the coast of Zhejiang and arrived at Diaoyu about fifteen hours later. Sailing close to the island, they were eventually intercepted by what has been described as three Japanese warships. Seven of the volunteers have been detained.

The miscreants involved in the 'protect Diaoyu' squad include an ex-soldier named Zhang Likun, a veteran flag-waver and Japan-baiter from Tianjin. Zhang spoke to journalists in November last year about the harassment he and his team received from a number of Japanese patrol boats and surveillance aircraft in the Diaoyu area.

Zhang Likun

Feng Jinhua, another familiar face on the anti-Japanese circuit, was also involved yesterday. Feng is a Chinese resident of Japan, and earned some degree of notoriety in August 2001 while making a public protest against the routine (and routinely provocative) visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Koizumi. Feng spray-painted the words 'gai si' (drop dead) on the front gate, and became something of a hero among the Japan-bashing Chinese youth.

Feng Jinhua

It is tempting to believe that some of these activists are actually professional agent provocateurs, but even if the government is not directly involved in the movement, it is certainly reluctant to criticize their activities. Foreign ministry officials today expressed their anger at the arrests, and after expressing the indisputable claim China has over the island, demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the 'Diaoyu Seven'.

There are as many as 6,000 uninhabited islands off the eastern and southeastern coast of China, and the government put forward a new policy to lease them off to private bidders last year, partly to help guarantee China's sovereignty, and partly to provide more lebensraum and more resources to maintain economic growth. The Protect the Diaoyu group has already submitted applications to take over the disputed islands, according to an article published last year in Southern Weekend.

The law should give legal backing to the fight against Japan and for sovereignty over Diaoyu, and Chinese settlement on a number of islands off the coast is expected to help Beijing to resolve disputes in its favour. After all, how can you force a claim on a territory when no one lives there, and when you are not doing anything with it?

More pertinent, perhaps, is the 80 billion barrels of oil said to lie beneath the seabed near the islands. But of course, Chinese sovereignty is unconditional, and oil merely a pleasant bonus.

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