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Chinese and Japanese experts on maritime and international relations huddled this week in Tokyo to discuss ways to keep the simmering tensions over the Senkaku Islands from escalating into a military clash.

Setting aside the issue of sovereignty over the East China Sea islets — called Diaoyu by China — that have been under Japan’s control since 1895, the roughly 20 experts who met Monday vowed to study ways to ensure an unintended clash doesn’t erupt between the two nations’ patrol ships that are routinely confronting each other near the uninhabited Senkakus.

Bilateral tensions took a turn for the worse last September when Japan effectively nationalized the islets by purchasing three of them from their Saitama title-holder, whose relatives had acquired the territory from kin of the Japanese fish-processing outfit that started operations in the chain.

Japan Coast Guard cutters continuously confronted Chinese fisheries patrol ships in the area. But recently, those vessels have been replaced by ships, presumably armed, of the new Chinese Coast Guard, upping the ante for provocation.

Following their one-day meeting Monday, the bilateral group of experts plans to meet again in October in Beijing before drawing up recommendations to be submitted to both governments in February.

Jiro Hanyu, chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and a former land ministry bureaucrat, told reporters Tuesday that the Senkaku standoff is an accident waiting to happen, and if hostilities were to escalate, nationalism in both countries would be further inflamed, a scenario he said “we must avoid.”

While neither government is likely to yield anytime soon, crisis-management, confidence-building and legal issues must be weighed, even at the civilian level, before the two nation’s coast guards or private boats clash, the experts said.

“If we look back on China-Japan history, I think (civilians) played an important role in influencing the governments of both nations. Private friendship associations . . . played huge roles in normalizing diplomatic ties between China and Japan (in 1972),” said Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies and an expert on maritime issues. “We hope to (exert) such influence (on the two governments)”

Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University’s School of International Studies, said an “accidental” maritime clash is highly likely to happen around the islets. And if a vessel is sunk or someone is killed as a result, this will doom bilateral ties for a long time, he said.

“That is why we are holding (this discussion). . . . We shouldn’t be having just (a) sense of aversion (toward) each other,” Zhu said, adding there are more things both sides should discuss besides sovereignty over the islets.

China started laying claim to the Senkakus in the 1970s after a U.N. report speculated that the area, besides being a fisheries bounty, held oil and gas deposits in the seabed. In recent years it has been drilling for such deposits just on its side of the Japan-drawn median line separating the two nations’ sea zones.

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