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Inside Story
Is an armed conflict looming in East Asia?
As Japan and China exchange rhetoric over disputed territories, we explore the possibility of military engagement.
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2012 15:54

Japan has deported 7 of the 14 Chinese activists who were arrested on Wednesday for landing on an island in the centre of a regional territorial dispute.

"All of China's neighbours don't want a war and cannot afford one in the region. But on the other hand nationalism is rising and for China territorial integrity sits at the very heart of China's national psyche…and the East China Sea is a channel of its [economic] lifeblood."

- Andrew Leung, an economist

As the activists were being questioned on Japan's Okinawa island, some media reports suggested that their deportation might defuse the tension between Asia's biggest economies.

At the heart of the territorial dispute is a chain of islands under Japanese control that is also claimed by Taiwan.

The islands - known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China and Diaoyutai on Taiwan - are close to strategic shipping lanes and are thought to have oil deposits.

Japan is also locked in another territorial dispute with its former colony South Korea. Both claim sovereignty over another island chain, known as Takeshima by the Japanese and Dokdo by the Koreans.

All these disagreements are linked to Japan's 20th century military expansion across Asia.

"The Japanese-South Korean dispute is cyclical… It's not likely to lead to an armed clash [but] it does raise tensions between two US allies in the region. The US has a very strict, neutral position on the sovereignty issue of Dokdo/Takeshima but it [dispute] does complicate matters…"

- Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation

Also adding to the anger of Japan's neighbours was the way two Japanese cabinet ministers decided the mark the anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific.

They ignored the Japanese prime minister's call and visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, a move that always anger China and South Korea.

To both Beijing and Seoul the gesture amounts to an official veneration of the 14 convicted war criminals laid to rest there, along with the two million war dead.

Inside Story asks: Could these territorial disputes in Asia lead to armed conflict?

Joining the discussion with presenter Ghida Fakhry are guests: Andrew Leung, an economist and political commentator; Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank; and Brett Bull, a freelance reporter who worked in Japan for 10 years.

"A lot of this is due to the fact that Japan was made to look somewhat cowardly in 2010 when it had to hand over the Chinese ship captain who was in the boat collision in the dispute over the Senkaku islands… Japan wants to be strong and they need to protect themselves in the region."

Brett Bull, a freelance reporter

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