Japan warns on island dispute with China

Posted on August 17, 2012

Japan’s trade minister warned on Friday that the latest escalation of a dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea could damage economic relations between the two countries.

Yukio Edano made the remark as Japan prepared to release 14 Hong Kong-based Chinese nationalists who had been detained for landing a ship on one of the disputed islands. “It’s impossible to imagine that it won’t have an impact,” he was quoted by Japanese media as saying.

    The activists were formally deported on Friday, with some heading for Hong Kong by air and others expected to leave later on Friday aboard their impounded fishing vessel, which had been used to land flag-wielding men on the remote island of Uotsuri on Wednesday.

    The group being sent back on the ship said they had abandoned the idea of a new attempt to land on the islands.

    Uotsuri is part of the Senkaku chain, which is controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan. The islands are known as Diaoyu in Chinese.

    Japanese conservatives, including some in the ruling Democratic party, have criticised the government for treating the matter as an immigration violation and sending the activists home quickly, rather than pursuing criminal charges.

    Jin Matsubara of Japan’s Democratic party and chairman of the national public safety commission, the top national-security agency, said: “This sort of behaviour, which is intended as a violation of territorial sovereignty, is different from normal illegal immigration and must be punished differently.”

    In an apparent attempt to appease conservatives, the government said it was stepping up efforts to take a separate maritime territorial dispute, this one with South Korea, to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

    South Korea’s agreement would be needed, however, and Seoul – which in this case controls the contested islands – has said it will refuse.

    The East China Sea dispute has hurt trade between Japan and China before. In 2010, after Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with a Japanese coast guard ship near the Senkaku, China abruptly stopped exports to Japan of rare earth minerals needed by Japanese electronics manufacturers. Beijing denied issuing orders to halt exports, but for more than a month no shipments of the crucial materials reached Japan.

    The activists, who are mainly Hong Kong citizens, are expected to receive a heroes’ welcome back home. The voyage was organised by a grassroots movement which enjoys widespread support in Hong Kong, where over 90 per cent of the population are ethic Chinese.

    Additional reporting by Enid Tsui in Hong Kong

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