Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Japan lodged an official protest with China after spotting two of its fisheries patrol boats near the Senkaku (Diaoyu for the Chinese), a group of islands at the centre of a bitter row between the Asian giants. In the meantime, nationalists in the two countries are taking to the streets, urging their respective governments to take a tough stance against the other.
“Last night around 9 pm [GMT + 9:00]4) our coastguard sighted them [Chinese boats] and afterwards the two left there and sailed north toward China,” Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku said on Monday. “After the incident we launched a protest through diplomatic channels,” he added.
Amid the row, nationalist street demonstrations were held in both countries. In China, protesters rallied over the weekend, chanting anti-Japanese slogans and calling for boycotts of Japanese goods. Similarly, messages posted online in recent days have expressed anti-Japanese views and called for anti-Japan protests. In the city of Lanzhou, Gansu, police yesterday broke up a protest by about 200 people calling for a tough line against Japan.
Relations between the two countries are currently at their lowest point in many years, after Japanese coastguards collided in September with a Chinese fishing trawler, seized the ship and arrested its captain.
Following the incident, China lodged an official protest that led to a series of retaliations that ended when Japan released the captain.
However, the issue of sovereignty over the islands remains. No one lives on them, but they have rich fishing grounds, and may contain important gas reserves. China and Japan as well as Taiwan claim them.
Earlier this month, China sent vessels into the disputed area with the aim of “protecting the legal rights of Chinese fishermen”. For its part, Japan continues to deploy its naval ships to conduct “surveillance” in the area. However, the navies of the countries have avoided any direct confrontation so far.
Officials in both governments continue to work for a diplomatic solution. "We expect Japan to work with us in joint efforts to maintain and advance the strategic bilateral relationship of mutual benefit," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement posted on the ministry's website. Nevertheless, China insists that it would not discuss matters that concern its “territorial integrity”.
At the same time, Japan announced it might send a seismic survey ship to check whether China has started drilling for gas in a disputed offshore field.
In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, “We need to maintain readiness of our defence forces so that we can effectively deal with any situation.”
On a different but perhaps related issue, Japanese officials have complained that China has started holding back shipments of rare-earth metals, vital in the manufacturing of electronic goods and vehicle parts.