Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Japan And China, Points Of Conflict

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has paid annual visits since taking office in 2001 to this Tokyo shrine for war dead, viewed by critics at home and abroad as a symbol of Japan’s state Shinto religion that mobilised the masses for war in the name of a divine emperor. Koizumi, who last visited the shrine a year ago, has repeatedly said his visits are to pray for peace and that Japan should never go to war again, but each visit has prompted anger in China and North and South Korea.

On April 5, Japan approved a new edition of a textbook that critics say whitewashes its militaristic past. The original textbook was first approved by the Education Ministry in 2001 in the face of strong protests from China and South Korea. Only a handful of school boards adopted the book. Critics say it plays down the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in China, ignores the sexual slavery of women for Japanese soldiers, and depicts Japanese actions as aimed at liberating other Asian countries. This year, all history textbooks approved by the ministry, not only the most contentious one, deleted the term "comfort women", a euphemism for wartime sex slaves.

Japan and China have long disputed ownership of a group of rocky, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. The islands are 410km west of Okinawa Island, the largest island in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, and provide access to rich fishing grounds and possible oil deposits in the area. Japan claimed them after defeating imperial China in 1895. The dispute flared up again in February, when Japan’s Coast Guard said it would take over maintenance of a lighthouse built in 1996 by Japanese right-wing activists. Construction of the lighthouse then touched off a flotilla of vessels with protesters from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-biggest oil consumers respectively, have been at odds for months over China’s exploration for natural gas in the East China Sea near an area Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone. Japan considers waters east of the midway point between its coastline and that of China to be its exclusive economic zone, and worries that nearby gas field development by China would draw reserves from geological structures that stretch under the seabed into its economic zone. On April 13, Japan began allocating rights for gas exploration in the disputed area, although the process will take several months and a decision on actual drilling will be made separately by the private firms.

Japan has repeatedly expressed concerns about China’s military buildup, a view that has caused it to oppose the European Union’s moves to lift an embargo against arms sales to China. Ties were further strained in November when a nuclear-powered Chinese submarine intruded into Japanese waters. China later said the vessel had done so by mistake. Japan has also expressed concern over security in the Taiwan Strait.