At the grassroots level at the very least, nationalistic sentiment appears to be rearing its head in Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islands are effectively controlled by Japan but are claimed by both China and Taiwan.

Tensions escalated after Japan deported 14 people who sailed to Uotsuri Islet aboard a ship from Hong Kong on Aug. 15. Seven of them set foot on the islet. As if to retaliate against the 14, 10 Japanese including five local assembly members landed on the islet on Aug. 19.. In China, anti-Japan demonstrations have taken place.

Both the Japanese and Chinese governments are exercising self-restraint over the Senkaku issue. This is a wise approach that should be maintained throughout. Both governments should do their most to prevent provocative actions by their citizens. They should not rule out the possibility that in the worst case, repeated landings by each country’s citizens on the Senkaku Islands, could lead to an unexpected violent clash.

In an issue like the Senkaku question, which revolves around a territorial dispute, nationalistic sentiment is likely to flare up among people in each country. Because of the nature of the issue, some people are likely to react emotionally. It is difficult to put down such emotional nationalistic sentiment — all the more reason for both governments to deal very cautiously with the issue.

The fact that the Japanese government deported the 14 who sailed to Uotsuri Islet has proven that Japan has effective control over the Senkaku Islands. Criticizing the government over the handling of the intruders could put it in a difficult position and further complicate the situation. Although both China and Taiwan claim the Senkaku Islands, they are not trying to undermine Japan’s effective control there. It must be remembered that when seven Chinese activists landed on Uotsuri Islet in March 2004, the government under Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi deported them — without indicting them — in order to prevent deterioration of the Japan-China relations.

It cannot be ruled out that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase Uotsuri and two other islets of the Senkakus from a private landowner as well as the government’s plan to purchase them have incited nationalistic sentiment in China. On Aug. 22, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government asked the government for a permit for officials and others to land on the islets. The government should cautiously handle the matter.

Japan should pay serious attention to Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s Aug. 5 proposals, which include shelving the territorial dispute, jointly developing resources in the East China Sea, writing rules of conduct for the area and maintaining self-restraint to prevent confrontations. It should seek ways to utilize Mr. Ma’s proposals to start constructive dialogue with China and Taiwan to prevent future clashes over the Senkakus and to nurture peaceful ties.

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