Island Dispute Escalates Tensions Between China and Japan, Sparks Street Protests

BY Frank N. Carlson  September 18, 2012 at 1:52 PM EDT

Chinese Protests Chinese protestors stage an anti-Japan rally outside the Japan Embassy Tuesday in Beijing. Protests took place across China in a dispute about small islands in the East China Sea.Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

Fervent demonstrations against Japan broke out across mainland China once again Tuesday as the country marked the 81st anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of northeastern China.

In Beijing, thousands of protesters gathered outside the Japanese embassy, some throwing eggs and burning Japanese flags amid heavy security, the Associated Press reported. Rallies were also held in other major Chinese cities, including Shanghai, while many Japanese businesses shuttered their doors in hopes of riding out the protests.

But this level of anti-Japanese sentiment isn’t explained by history alone. This year’s observance falls at a particularly low point in Sino-Japanese relations, as the two find themselves at odds over a chain of small islands in the East China Sea known the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.

Both countries covet these eight uninhabited islets — northeast of Taiwan, west of Okinawa — for their important shipping lanes and fishing resources. They also represent an entry point to possible oil and gas deposits in surrounding waters. While Japan has administered the islands since the early 1970s, in recent months tensions have mounted over the real estate, and last week Japan’s government set off a new chapter in the row by announcing it would buy some of the islands from private owners.

Tokyo ProtestsJapanese nationalists in Tokyo carry national flags and placards during a rally about territorial claims to the Senkaku islands, also known as the Diaoyu islands in China. Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Japan says its purchase was intended to avert a rift with China by preventing the islands’ development by the governor of Tokyo. However, the action has had exactly the opposite effect. China sent patrol ships into the Japanese-controlled waters around the islands, and over the weekend it allowed dozens of protests around China that targeted Japanese diplomatic missions and companies.

In at least five cities, these demonstrations turned violent, and media in Japan reported attacks on at least six Japanese nationals. In Qingdao, a port near Beijing, arsonists set fire to Toyota and Honda dealerships. In other cities, Japanese stores and restaurants were defaced and looted.

On Monday, Beijing sought to reassert control. Police stepped up their presence at the embassies, and across the country large-scale demonstrations were banned as arrests were made. Despite that assurance, a number of major Japanese businesses — Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Canon, among them — announced they would shutter operations temporarily out of safety concerns. Many Japanese schools in Shanghai and Beijing canceled classes for the week.

Also on Monday, Chinese media said more than 1,000 Chinese fishing ships were heading toward the islands, while there were also reports of two Japanese landing on one island — moves that will further stoke the conflict.

It all comes as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visits the Asia-Pacific. In Beijing today on a three-day visit to China, he met with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, and pressed him to resolve the conflict through peaceful measures. He and others have urged caution on both sides, but the U.S remains committed to a neutral position on ownership of the islands.