Futile gesture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 June, 1998, 12:00am

Now that the latest Diaoyu Islands venture by Hong Kong activists has ended predictably with the boat rammed on both sides and protesters being forced to abandon ship, it must be hoped that crew members will be prepared to consider finally agreeing to abandon what has become an annual fiasco.

The venture has gone from tragedy to farce in the two years since activist David Chan Yuk-cheung was drowned after diving into the water in patriotic fervour during the first voyage. From any standpoint, it has become a rather pointless gesture since the objective of planting the Chinese flag on this tiny group of rocks was achieved shortly after Mr Chan's death.

The lighthouse constructed by Japanese nationalists which triggered the dispute has long since been demolished, and the government in Tokyo has been rigorous in keeping its nationals away from the trouble archipelago.

Here in Hong Kong, public support weakens with every escapade, making it difficult to raise money for the sailing. Voyages abandoned off Sai Kung, boats which run aground, seasickness among the activists and shipboard rows have stripped the venture of dignity and purpose.

It is time for the participants to accept that territorial disputes are settled at the negotiating table, and that their enterprise can never achieve its stated objective. When the time is right, China and Japan will return to the subject of the Diaoyus, and try to reach some form of agreement.

At present, both countries have serious economic problems to worry about, but, in recent years, they have been working to increase trade and establish friendlier relations. A breakthrough on thorny bilateral questions is more likely to be achieved in a calm atmosphere than by confrontation.

There is no denying the bitterness of memories of the past, or the anger over Tokyo's refusal to make a formal apology for war crimes. But that is a separate issue. Diaoyu activists should ask themselves if a group of uninhabited islands is really worth the risk of life and limb, or whether their protests have become counter-productive.