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China and Japan in Dangerous Dance over Disputed Islands

Chinese patrol ships arrived in waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands on Tuesday, within hours of Tokyo’s announcement that it had signed a contract to buy several of the islands from their private owners, a Japanese family. As Jane Perlez reports for the Times: “The ships, belonging to the China Marine Surveillance, are commonly deployed in the South China Sea where China and its neighbors have other territorial disputes over islands.”

It’s a dance of sorts. Neither Japan nor China is trying to stir up trouble over the islands. As Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told the BBC: “We have absolutely no desire for any repercussions as far as Japan-China relations are concerned. It is important that we avoid misunderstanding and unforeseen problems.” But the public reaction on both sides means that tensions over the Senkakus and other island groups are likely to keep on increasing. The Japanese government is buying these islands from a private owner in order to prevent Shintaro Ishihara, the very nationalistic governor of Tokyo, from buying and staging provocations on them. The Chinese understand this perfectly well.

But China, in order to defend its claim of sovereignty, must protest. And public opinion in China will be stirred by the protest. The less-sophisticated will not understand exactly what Tokyo has in mind. The Japanese government knows that China (at least it’s Foreign Ministry) is doing its best to limit its protests to the minimum necessary. Perlez continues: “In a statement on Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the purchase of the islands by the Japanese government ‘cannot alter the fact the Japanese side stole the islands from China.'” Many people in Japan will take this at face value.

Even as the two governments are doing their best to avoid making a bad situation worse, public opinion in both countries is likely to sour.

Americans can have a hard time understanding the emotional power of these territorial disputes. We don’t have unresolved territorial issues. We don’t covet any territory anywhere, and nobody is holding any territory that we think is rightfully ours. This is a huge luxury and a great blessing. But as a result we can underestimate just how deeply these issues can stir public opinion in less fortunate countries. Insignificant dirt mounds and tiny rocks in the sea mean a lot when their ownership is in dispute.

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