By Hans Greimel
Republished from Japan Times

Nation has territorial rows with all of its neighbours as nationalism heats up

The battle-ready Japan Coast Guard cutter Hateruma has just pulled into port after 10 days at sea protecting the nation’s territory from Chinese encroachment.

Its canvas-wrapped deck gun hasn’t been fired—it probably won’t—and the islets it is watching are obscure, guano-encrusted outcroppings.

China and Taiwan also claim ownership, and history, pent-up nationalism, fishing rights and oil and gas make even the smallest speck of land a potential flash point in the seas surrounding Japan.

“They’re uninhabited, except for a few goats,” Japan Coast Guard Director Takashi Nakagawa said of the islands, which Japan calls Senkaku and China refers to as Diaoyu. “But if you let your guard down for just a second, something’s bound to happen.”

Unique among industrialized nations, Japan is engulfed in territorial disputes with all of its near neighbors—Taiwan, China, South Korea, North Korea and Russia—and the quarrels are heating up as Asian economies expand and start looking for more energy and seafood.

Tensions could spike next month when South Korea plans a maritime survey of waters around another cluster of islets controlled by Seoul but claimed by Japan. Tokyo has warned its patrol boats will chase away “intruders.”

Called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the islets lie in a no man’s land of overlapping exclusive economic zones claimed by both sides.

In April, Japan tried to mount its own survey, but backed down after South Korea sent in 20 gunboats. The first talks in six years to resolve the conflict ended June 13 with only an agreement to meet again in September.

“This is a problem that can never be given up or negotiated, no matter at what cost or sacrifice,” South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun vowed during the last standoff. Turning up the temperature, he likened Tokyo’s behavior to its 1910 colonial annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

Adding to the tensions is North Korea, which keeps the islands on its long list of belligerently worded grievances against Japan.

Of the disputed islands, Japan controls only the Senkakus, which lie halfway between Taiwan and Okinawa.

South Korea keeps a permanent security detachment on its controlled islets while Russia occupies four islands off Hokkaido.

Lying off the northeastern tip of Japan, the islands, which are inhabited, at the center of the row with Russia were seized by Soviet troops in the last days of World War II.

Meanwhile, China has started drilling for gas near contested waters in the East China Sea, which is heavily traveled by military and commercial ships and aircraft.

Japan looks highly unlikely to start shooting over the hot spots, but all players are wary of potential conflict.

“It’s a hypothetical thing. But people do imagine that something might happen,” said Akira Chiba, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. “We don’t plan to take them forcefully. It doesn’t mean we gave them up.”

Occasional flareups trigger wild protests in China, Taiwan and South Korea.

South Korean nationalists habitually burn the Japanese flag in street rallies. One patriot even covered his body in 200,000 bees this year to denounce Japanese “imperialism”—getting stung a reported 200 times in the process.

Protesters from Hong Kong and Taiwan have repeatedly tried to storm the Senkaku Islands to plant the Chinese flag and tear down a beacon installed there by Japanese rightists staking their claim to the islets.

It is the job of Japanese ships like the Hateruma to intercept them, and one Hong Kong protester died in 1996 after jumping into the ocean when his landing attempt was foiled.

When it comes to Russia, it’s Japan’s turn to protest.

Japanese roadsides within sight of the Russian-occupied isles are dotted with signs demanding return of the territory.

The Soviet Union expelled some 17,000 Japanese from the islands and the dispute still prevents Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty. Russia has expressed readiness to return two of the islands, but Japan insists on recovering all four.

“If you give up in one instance, other countries might think Japan would be willing to give up in other cases as well,” said Shigenori Okazaki, a political analyst in Tokyo.

At the heart of the dispute is resources.

Rich fishing grounds surround most of the disputed areas, as do potentially huge undersea reserves of natural gas and oil.

Korea Gas Corp. estimates the sea floor around what Japan calls Takeshima alone has enough deposits to meet South Korean natural gas demands for 30 years.

Nascent military rivalries have also emerged.

In 2004, a Chinese submarine infiltrated Japanese waters while returning from a mission near Guam. The foray underlined for Tokyo the importance of bolstering its claim to two nearby outcroppings it calls Okinotorishima.

Japan claims Okinotorishima is an island, but China says it’s just a reef, meaning it has fishing rights there as well as access to strategic shipping lanes between U.S. bases in Guam and the Asian mainland.

For now, China and Japan are talking about possible joint development of the East China Sea gas fields. But no breakthrough is in sight and the next round of talks hangs in limbo.