Fired up by increasingly nationalist politics at home, China, Japan, and S. Korea are reluctant to be seen as backing down on the issue of sovereignty.
At the center of the dispute between China and Japan are the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese, an uninhabited outcrop of rocks that lie in the middle of rich fishing grounds and potentially richer oil and gas deposits.
On Tuesday, Japan's national government signed a contract to buy the islands for 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) from the Japanese family who has been leasing them to the government. While in Japan this is seen as an attempt to head off a plan by Tokyo’s controversial nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to take control of the disputed isles, China reacted angrily and immediately dispatched patrol boats to the nearby waters, in a significant escalation to the standoff.
Fired up by increasingly assertive publics and local politicians at home, all three country’s leaders – especially China and Japan – are reluctant to be perceived as backing down on this issue at the end of their premierships. Seen together, say analysts, they could spell greater trouble for the region.
“These territorial disputes could destabilize the region and cause an arms race in Southeast Asia,” Hyun Dae Song of Korea’s Kookmin University said at a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Though the islands have been subject to claim and counterclaim for centuries, the current diplomatic row between Japan and China escalated after a Chinese fishing boat crashed into a Japan Coast Guard vessel there in 2010, resulting in the arrest of the Chinese captain. That set off a series of events, eventually leading to a Japanese governor’s proposal to buy the islands.