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Tempests toss East China Sea

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OTTAWA -- To an outsider, they seem like little more than desolate rocks rising sharply out of the sea, no signs of human habitation on their austere remote location in the East China Sea.

But those seemingly useless chunks of rock suddenly plunged Japan and China into turbulent confrontation recently, with angry Chinese mobs attempting to storm Japan's embassy in Beijing and countless thousands of Chinese across that country attacking anything connected with Japan, including Japanese restaurants and automobiles. Furious Chinese instituted a national boycott of Japanese products.

Tension between China and Japan flared up again on Tuesday when Chinese and Japanese naval vessels flashed warning signs at each other within the disputed waters which ended in a standoff without the ships actually clashing.

The original turmoil erupted in September following an announcement by Prime Minister Noda in Tokyo that his government had "purchased" the islands in question from a Japanese citizen who reportedly owned them despite the fact their ownership has been contested by China.

The islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China are located in international waters, normally only frequented by fishermen.

Following counter demonstrations in Japan, other countries urged the two governments to restrain their citizens from further violence.

Watching with even greater concern was the government of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan, because Taiwan also claims the islands, which they call Diaoyutai.

Taiwan maintains that under the terms of the July 1945 Potsdam Proclamation and Japan's signing of the 1945 Instrument of Surrender, "all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa (Taiwan), and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China."

On Aug. 5, President Ma called upon all parties concerned to demonstrate restraint and avoid escalating confrontational acts, to not abandon dialogue and deal with disputes through peaceful means by establishing a mechanism for cooperation on exploring and developing resources in the East China Sea. (Many countries, including South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines and others, also have competing claims over various islands.)

While the potential dangers arising from the tension over ownership of the disputed islands should not be minimized, they are simply the latest illustration of broader problems affecting relations between China and its neighbours because of its growing geo-political and economic strength.

This is particularly relevant in the case of Japan, which is trying to maintain its own standing in the region while reviving its trade and economic performance after a prolonged period of stagnation. This is happening during a period when Japan is faced with major changes occurring within Japanese society, including growing nationalist tendencies within certain groups.

(Interestingly, the turbulence between China and Japan arose when the Japanese government, fearful that the ultra-nationalist right-wing governor of the Tokyo region was considering buying the islands, pre-empted such a possibility, purchasing them instead, thus unleashing the confrontation with China.)

While the tumult between China and Japan centers on a long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of islands which Japan was given temporary trusteeship of, the fallout goes far beyond the disputed islands. And this reality has significant implications for other regional countries.

The importance of the growing trade and economic inter-relationship with China that Japan and Taiwan increasingly have puts restraints on all three's freedom of action.

For example, were China to carry out a sustained boycott of Japanese products it would risk endangering its own exports to the all-important Japanese market and also risk Japanese investment in China drying up.

According to a Japanese business group, 30,000 firms operate in China. Japan has investments there of $85 billion. A deterioration of bilateral relations could have a highly negative effect on trade and economic relations. For their part, the Japanese don't want to jeopardize access to a market of 1.3 billion people.

In Taiwan's case, the Taiwanese are one of the biggest investors in China. Many of China's top firms are partially Taiwanese controlled.

Although President Ma has been instrumental in reducing tension with China -- Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province of China -- many fear Taiwan's economy is becoming too linked with China's, potentially undermining Taiwan's freedom of action. If Beijing's present pragmatic policy towards Taiwan's de facto autonomy changed under the new leadership, it would work to the advantage of Taiwan's pro-independence movement, something Beijing would want to avoid.

In the final analysis, despite the recent outbreak of violence over the contested islands, all governments in the region -- a dozen or so with competing territorial claims -- have compelling reasons to find peaceful ways to deal with such emotionally-charged issues as the president of Taiwan has proposed.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He recently visited Taiwan.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J11

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