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Date Posted: 13:16 12/02/2005

Nationalizing the dispute

The Japanese government takes over a lighthouse in the Senkaku Islands

IT SEEMS that the Japanese government has taken advantage of the Lunar New Year lull in order to seize control of a lighthouse built in 1988 by right-wing activists on the disputed lumps of rock known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands and to the Japanese as the Senkakus. Tokyo, it appears, is upping the ante, nationalising a dispute that it had usually left to patriotic student groups.

A statement from the Asian Office of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Bureau has, naturally, criticized the Japanese government for violating China's sovereignty in such a provocative manner. Japan, for its part, has downplayed the move, stressing its inalienable sovereignty over the uninhabited islands.

Extremists from both countries have been descending on the Senkakus for several years to plant flags and hurl insults at each other. A team from China's 'Protect the Diaoyu' movement was arrested by Japanese patrol boats in March last year. The Chinese government was unwilling to break up the demonstration that ensued outside the Japanese embassy.

Japan is becoming increasingly aggressive in the defence of its territorial claims, not least because the area possesses rich reserves of oil and natural gas. Much of the Japanese press, for its part, has been calling on the government to stop 'appeasing' Beijing. Japan is worried by China's growing regional power and presence, and has now decided to draw the line.

It is easy to suggest that the reason why anti-Japanese sentiments run so deep in China is because the government allows them to do so. This overestimates Beijing's control over public opinion and underestimates the strength of popular resentment and the significant role that Japanese perfidy plays in China's 'wounded' national identity. In any case, with the stakes so high, it is hard to see how the growing tensions between the two countries can be defused.

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