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RISING TENSION: In recent weeks, the two countries' ships have been playing a game of cat-and-mouse, writes Martin Fackler
THE voyage to the remote Senkaku/Diaoyu islands at the centre of one of Asia's most dangerous territorial disputes is a bone-jarring seven-hour boat ride from one of Japan's southernmost ports, a long enough journey that the fishermen who brave the often stormy seas regularly sail in pairs for safety. The trip from the mainland of China, which also lays claim to the islands, is even longer.
The waters around the islands are believed to be infested with man-eating sharks. And the islands themselves, while tropical, are hardly postcard quality. Uotsuri, the largest of the islands, is nothing more than a pair of craggy grey mountains with steep, boulder-strewn slopes that rise 304.8m almost straight from the water's edge.
Two nearby islands are nothing more than large rocks covered by scruffy shrubs and bird droppings. The only structure on the islands is Uotsuri's small, unmanned lighthouse. No one has lived on any of the islands since World War 2.
The value of the islands has never been in their aesthetics but in history and geopolitics: what control of the islands says about the relative power of Asia's two economic giants, one rising and the other in what many see as a slow decline.
It remains unclear how far the longstanding territorial conflict over the islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China could escalate now that it has flared again. China has in recent days tamped down protests that were threatening to slip beyond its control, and the two countries share deep economic ties that make the stakes of further escalation clear. But popular opinion in China has been unwilling to let the issue die, and a small group of nationalists in Japan has so far seemed unwilling to let go of an issue that helps define it.
On Thursday, half dozen armed Japanese coastguard cutters were visible patrolling waters around the islands, some of them sailing around Uotsuri. (The coastguard will not disclose how many ships it has in the area.)
Somewhere over the horizon, 16 Chinese surveillance ships -- the largest number yet to gather nearby -- had assembled to challenge Japan's claim to the islands, according to the Japanese coastguard. In recent weeks, the two countries' ships have been playing an almost Cold War-style game of cat-and-mouse, with Chinese boats sometimes darting past the maritime boundary, pursued by the coastguard.
While Japan's coastguard is committed to intercepting the Chinese patrols, it is also vigilant about preventing an episode that might further provoke China. Japanese nationals are barred from landing, for fear they might be photographed waving Japanese flags, as happened last month when nationalists swam from boats to Uotsuri without permission. (Their landing followed an earlier landing by Chinese nationalists.)
The current tensions began earlier this year, when the nationalist governor of Tokyo suddenly announced he wanted to buy three of the islands from their owner, a Japanese citizen living in suburban Tokyo, because he felt the government was not doing enough to defend the island chain claimed by Japan. That prompted the central government to buy them instead, which officials said was to prevent them from falling into radical hands.
But the purchase was seen in China as a Japanese effort to firm up its control, setting off a week of violent anti-Japanese street demonstrations in dozens of Chinese cities.
That is a lot of commotion over islands that until recently seemed a forgotten backwater. Even before World War 2, there were few economic activities on the islands. A small factory on Uotsuri made dried bonito shavings, a favourite Japanese food item, and hunters gathered albatross feathers for European fashion boutiques.
At that time, the factory owner had bought four of the islands from the government, which showed little interest in them. After the factory closed in 1940, the factory owner's son held onto the islands until the 1970s and early 1980s, when, ageing and childless, he sold them off one by one to a family friend, Kunioki Kurihara, who recently sold three of them to the government.
His family still owns one that it rents to the national government. That island, and another one already owned by the national government, were both used for bombing practice by the United States military until 1978.
Interest in the islands rose in the late 1960s, when scientists began saying the nearby sea floor could hold oil deposits.
The current rise in tensions was evident during the recent boat trip to the islands, when a coastguard ship trailed the ship carrying the journalists and nationalists, even after extracting promises that no one would make a break for the islands. As the two ships were about 4.8km from Uotsuri, the coastguard demanded the charter go no further.
The three nationalists said that they planned to make their point about the need to defend the islands against China by posting a short documentary of their trip on YouTube.
After the coastguard stopped the ship, the three men stepped on deck to perform a ceremony. With the island looming in front of them, one man held the Japanese flag as a warning was read against invading the islands. The man holding the flag then faced the watching coastguard crew, clipped his heels together and crisply saluted in the style of Japan's prewar military.
"Thank you very much!" yelled the man, Hideto Sato, 51. "Please continue the tough job of protecting the Senkaku Islands!" NYT