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China and Japan: What's going on?

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It is a well-known fact in history that the most important events do not always garner the attention they deserve at the time that they occur. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen riots throughout the Muslim world, dynamic events which have shocked the international community at large into attention. But elsewhere in the East, even more weighty conflicts are taking place- conflicts which will have a far greater effect on the rest of the world. If you haven’t had your eye on the Sino-Japanese conflict, now is the time to catch up.

The conflict is essentially one over property rights to the Diaoyu (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese) islands, an archipelago of five islands and three rocks south of Japan and east of mainland China. The islands themselves are not hugely attractive; they’re basically lumps of rock in the sea, totalling no more than seven square kilometres of land. The largest islands support limited wildlife: albatross colonies, various insects, and a rare indigenous species of mole called the Senkaku. It is the surrounding ocean that really interests the two countries. In 1968 it was discovered that there may well be submerged oil reserves to be had, and this has sparked debate over who these uninhabitable islands truly belong to.

This year the debate seems to be coming to a head. Japan and the People’s Republic of China, supported by the Republic of China (Taiwan), simply cannot agree on who has the right to the islands. They both have their own explanations, sometimes going all the way back to the 16th century - but suffice it to say, their stories don’t match. The Japanese government tried to make things a bit simpler earlier this year by attempting to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, a deal which was sealed this month. The dispute has only been escalated by this move.

The long-running feud is also being exacerbated by political concerns. On both sides, nationalist fervour has a strong influence on proceedings- with both countries afraid to lose face by conceding the islands. Various nationalist groups have also caused consternation to both countries by sailing independently to the islands and setting foot on them in protest.

The Japanese government, the Democratic Party of Japan, is in dire straits elsewhere because of its previously soft attitude on China- the party has lost so much public support in recent years that an early election is being considered. Similarly, the communist government of China is looking to hold a congress this year in order to facilitate a change of power, and is therefore reluctant to appear vulnerable to its neighbours. It has also authorised protest marches by the Chinese populace, an incredibly rare occurrence in the PRC, and some have suggested that this may be, in part, an effort to divert public attention from the apparent misconduct of former Communist Party Official Bo Xilai which has recently come to light. In such a position, neither government can afford to back down- a situation which casts an ominous shadow on the future of this conflict.

Perhaps the most shocking prospect at this point is the breakdown of trade relations between China and Japan- a relationship which lead to $345bn of trade last year alone. If the two countries were to sever their ties, it would more than likely lead to Japan losing its place in the international market, and that in turn would have a huge effect worldwide. The West looks to these Eastern powers as the rising leaders in the economic world, and with such a fraught conflict taking place off such influential shores, the Senkaku mole is certainly not the only one at risk.

 




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