Monday, June 16, 2008

Japan, Taiwan Standoff Over Islands

Guardian - A Japanese coastguard vessel today turned its water cannon on Taiwanese protesters near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea, as the sinking of a fishing boat in the area last week threatened to escalate into a political row.

The coastguard repelled a boat carrying about a dozen nationalist activists, accompanied by nine Taiwanese coastguard vessels, during a three-hour standoff near the Senkaku islands early this morning.

The fleet briefly entered Japanese territorial waters and got as far as 50 miles from the islands - known as the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan - before turning back to what many expect will be a heroes' welcome.

The eight uninhabited islands, which lie about 2,000 kilometres south-west of Tokyo, are claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China and have become a focal point for nationalists from all sides.

The three governments are also keen to protect their claims to the islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potential natural gas deposits.

Relations between Tokyo and Taipei quickly deteriorated last Tuesday when a Taiwanese fishing boat sank following a collision with a Japanese coastguard vessel.

Although all 16 people aboard were rescued, Japan briefly detained the captain of the stricken vessel, sparking angry Taiwanese calls for an apology.

Japan says the fishing boat caused the collision, while its coastguard was accused of ramming the smaller craft before it sank.

Taiwan said it would recall its envoy to Tokyo, while the premier, Liu Chao-shiuan, refused to rule out armed conflict if the two sides failed to resolve the dispute peacefully.

"I believe declaration of war is the last option to resolve disputes between two nations," Liu told the Taiwanese legislature last week, according to the Taipei Times.

In Tokyo, the chief cabinet secretary, Nobutaka Machimura, said the protesters' actions were "extremely regrettable ... even though we have repeatedly issued warnings and requests through diplomatic channels".

"The Senkaku islets are our territory. That is blatantly obvious in terms of history and international law."

He called for calm on both sides, "as we should not let the incident disturb peace in the region".

Taiwan reportedly plans to increase the number of coastguard vessels near the islands from four to seven and to send a frigate to the area later this week.