Diaoyu Islands

Activists' stunts won't solve Diaoyu dispute

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2004, 12:00am

Periodic journeys to the disputed Diaoyu Islands by groups such as the Patriots Alliance Network serve to keep the issue alive, but at what cost and to what end? For all their riskiness, these stunts actually allow Japan to reassert its claim over the islands. Without fail, Japanese boat patrols are scrambled and in the case of this week's boat trip, the seven activists were held for questioning by Japanese police.

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, is forced, first of all, to guarantee Chinese citizens' safety. Reiterating its claim to the islands is secondary. On balance, even if the protesters are able to plant Chinese flags before being hauled away, they have done nothing to bolster Beijing's claim.

If anything, the activists flirt with the possibility of sparking a diplomatic or military confrontation. There is no question that private citizens have no right to prosecute international policy and this is especially so in a case where the mainland government has stressed the need for settlement through dialogue. One mystery, then, is why this recent voyage, planned well in advance and covered by many media outlets including Xinhua, was allowed to go ahead.

Naturally, the Diaoyu question does not exist in isolation from overall Sino-Japanese relations or the undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment that stems from the two countries' histories and continuing rivalries for leadership and access to resources within the region. With the rising popularity of the internet as a public forum, these feelings have recently taken on a life of their own, through a profusion of sites and discussion boards. On the Chinese side, this history - including Japanese occupation from 1931-1945 and the Sino-Japanese war that saw the Qing dynasty cede control of the Diaoyus in an 1895 treaty - is keenly felt even today.

More recent disputes and tensions are often seen through the filter of this past, whether it is the unearthing of buried Japanese-made chemical weapons found in Qiqihar last year, the competition to build a pipeline for transporting Siberian oil or the question of awarding the contract for a bullet train project along the east coast. But while expression of opinions on these matters is one thing, risking life, limb and an international row to make a point that is better presented through diplomatic channels is another. Just as the solutions to thorny questions of Sino-Japanese relations should be left to political leaders, the same applies to territorial disputes such as the Diaoyus.

The Japanese government has wisely said it will discourage a right-wing Japanese group from staging a counter-protest. It would be helpful if the mainland government similarly discouraged future trips by groups such as the Patriots Alliance Network. The resolution, whenever it comes, will not be the result of these freelance voyages.