Senkaku? Diaoyu?

Japan and China (and Taiwan) are currently embroiled in a dispute about who has sovereignty over a group of very small islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, known to Chinese speakers as the Diaoyu Islands. You can read about the background to this dispute on the BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11341139 but this morning there was an article in the Daily Yomiuri about the so-called ‘propaganda war’ both China and Japan are engaged in, domestically, but also internationally. Since someone had told me earlier in the week that Japanese TV news reports refer to the islands as the ‘Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture’ this caught my attention.

The current situation is the same as it has been for weeks now; Japan has Coast Guard boats patrolling around the islands, while China and Taiwan continue to send their Coast Guards to the disputed area to play cat-and-mouse with their Japanese counterparts. Taiwan has also sent fishing boats and there have also been boatloads of Taiwanese journalists. On at least one day the Coast Guards have circled each other firing their water canon at each other. Vaguely ridiculous, but since it could escalate very easily so it’s also rather scary. The newspaper article refers to this daily tension as ‘steady’.

Clearly, since I am in Tokyo and reading about this in a Japanese newspaper, the language (and editorial content) favours the Japanese view. So I can read this morning that ‘Beijing began a large-scale propaganda campaign to win over international opinion’ while ‘Foreign Ministry officials have been explaining Japan’s position on the Senkaku issue to officials at various embassies in Tokyo and in the overseas media’ including an appearance on American TV by a Japanese diplomat. At government level, the latest salvo is the refusal of the Chinese Finance Minister, the People’s Bank of China governor and other assorted Chinese bank representatives to attend the annual IMF and World Bank meetings being held in Tokyo. Since the Chinese economy is the 2nd largest in the world this is clearly going to affect what can be discussed there and sounds like A Big Deal.

However, this is the same kind of thing we have been hearing for a while, so I was more interested in the information in the article about the ramifications of the row. According to the article, sales of Japanese-made cars in China in September dropped 40.8% compared to last year, and 66,000 seats on Japan-China routes booked for the period from September to November have been canceled. Roughly two thirds of those seats were on ANA flights, one third were on JAL. These numbers don’t just mean flights canceled; each one is a tourist who won’t come to Japan and  spend money here. It’s also 66,000 lost opportunities for Chinese and Japanese people to connect with each other, and that is a real pity. Clearly, this could have serious implications for Japan; you can see the official statistics on the Japan Tourism Marketing site, http://www.tourism.jp/english/statistics/inbound.php. According to these numbers, that 66,000 will make a big dent in the number of tourists coming from China. Elsewhere I have found that Japan has the third largest travel and tourist economy in the world, and that was badly impacted last year after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency at Fukushima Dai-ichi, when tourism was down 28% from 2010.

Serious stuff. Although it only takes one hothead with a gun on one of those Coast Guard boats (from any of the 3 countries) to make this so much more serious, while those boats are bobbing about firing water canon at each other the economic ramifications are already serious. I don’t have the solution, but I hope this grandstanding, whether it is ‘propaganda’ or ‘explaining a stance’ somehow becomes diplomatic negotiations to resolve this stand-off.

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