As protests continue in mainland China over the purchase of several islands by the Japanese government, the government of China has taken more steps to assert its sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Some government officials have suggested export restrictions against Japan. On Thursday, the Ministry of Land and Resources announced that it would slash the number of companies mining rare earth elements by 40 percent.


A “Small” Transaction

Activists hold their national flags on Uotsuri island, one of the many Senkaku-Diaoyu islands in the East China sea. Source: AP

It all started back in April, where the Japanese governor Shintaro Ishihara allowed Japan to purchase the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from their Japanese owners. The Japanese Coast Guard prevented any Chinese protesters from reaching the island, sparking off nationwide protests throughout China. During the month of August, protestors burned Japanese flags and chanted anti-Japanese slogans, and many vandalized Japanese shops and boycotted Japanese goods.

However, the initial protests were nothing compared to what was to come in September. On September 11th, Japan formally nationalized the three islands. In response, China sent patrol ships to the islands to demonstrate its claim of ownership. Back in China, another wave of protests broke out, and protestors marched through their cities calling for more boycotts of Japanese goods. In some areas, protests turned into vandalism as protestors in Qingdao damaged 10 Japanese companies. In other cities some casualties of vandalism included a Toyota sales outlet, a Japanese department store, a Garden Hotel, and a Panasonic factory.

The Chinese government’s response was swift. It decried the Japanese attempts to nationalize the island, and continues to stake their claim by submitting a plan to request an extension to their boundaries to the United Nations. Nonetheless it sent riot police to quell the protests, but with no avail.


Who Really Owns the Islands?

Uotsuri, an islet of the group. Source: Wikipedia

Ask this question to a Chinese or Japanese citizen and you will probably get different answers. The Chinese will say that they owned the islands for centuries, citing early recordings and maps. They claim that the Japanese ceded rights to the islands after World War II, and that the Japanese knew that the islands were never theirs. The Japanese stance is that they were given administrative power over the islands by the United States. They cite government surveys which shows the islands being uninhabited since 1895. The Japanese state that the Chinese only stake claim to the islands because of reports indicated large reserves of oil and gas under the island seabed.

Regardless of the arguments, there is no doubt that Chinese-Japanese relations have scars dating back to the Second World War. China still bears grudges due to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Atrocities committed by the Japanese as they pushed further inland did not help calm anti-Japanese sentiment. To this day, there are still some Chinese who remember what the Japanese did 80 years ago, and see this dispute as a reminder of Japanese imperialism. It is of no surprise that the peak of the protests occurred during the 81st anniversary of the invasion.


Japanese Response

In light of these protests, the Japanese response has been surprisingly reticent. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and economic sanctions by the Chinese government will be disastrous for the Japanese economy. Partly to the protests, trade has fallen 1.4 percent and investment is beginning to stagnate. Many technology companies in Japan rely on Chinese factories to produce their goods. In addition, many Japanese towns rely on Chinese tourists to sustain their economy. Already many towns, such as the town of Ishigaki, are seeing sharp drops in tourists. Japan is becoming more dependent on China, and coupled by China’s surging economy, is torn between its sagging commerce and territorial claims.


A Low Profile in Marc Garneau

Despite the severity of the protests on the other side of the globe, many students in Marc Garneau are oblivious to the dispute.

“I vaguely remember hearing about it on the news, but I don’t know much about it,” Grade 12 student Gabriel Wong said when asked about what he thought about the dispute.

Senior Reporter Peter Wen shared similar sentiments. “Never heard of it,” he said simply.

Those who were aware of the dispute took a rational approach and did not take any sides.

“Both countries may be squabbling over territory – even territory rich in oil. Nonetheless, the main reason is national pride. Both countries are reluctant to back down because of their mutual histories, and that’s understandable. They’re also reluctant because of the political consequences, such as appearing weak to their respective people. That’s also understandable,” MJ Chen said.

“But they should put their past aside and remember that future economic development and growth is more important than old grudges. It may seem weak to back down, but those actions will be seen as a forward step to reconciling the political and historical differences between the two countries.”

Nevertheless, there were some who saw the conflict differently.

“It belongs to Taiwan,” said Grade 12 student Allen Yu.