A little past 9:30 on the morning of Sept. 7, 2010, a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea spots a Chinese fishing trawler off the coast of islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
The Japanese have little tolerance for such incursions in the Senkakus, which they annexed in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War. But recently China has asserted claims to these islands extending hundreds of years earlier. The island dispute is wrapped up in a morass of misunderstanding and oneupmanship, with an eye toward the rich seabed resources nearby.
When you ask Japanese officials about the territorial dispute, they will look at you as if it is almost insulting to answer the question. “It’s our land,” one government official told me, as if an American diplomat had been asked if Hawaii is part of the United States.
On that morning, the Japanese vessel pulls alongside the smaller Chinese trawler and blares messages to the crew in Chinese from loudspeakers: “You are inside Japanese territorial waters. Leave these waters.”
Videos from the day show that instead of leaving, the Chinese boat bends toward the stern of the Japanese cutter, hitting it and then sailing on. Forty minutes later, the same captain veers into another Japanese coast guard ship.
Tokyo has managed previous incursions with little fanfare. However, the newly elected Democratic Party of Japan detained the trawler’s crew and captain. It planned to put the captain on trial. China retaliated by detaining four Japanese citizens.
Then, on Sept. 21, Japanese trading houses informed its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that China was refusing to fill orders for rare-earth elements — a set of 17 different, obscure rare metals. What seemed like a battle over seabed resources became a new conflict, one that is potentially far larger, a War over the Periodic Table.
Japanese officials and manufacturers were frightened. These elements — essential materials in Japan’s high-tech industry, well known for its high quality components — were virtually all produced in China.
Beijing never acknowledged an export ban or said it would use the rare-metal trade as a political weapon. But no other country reported such delays. And Beijing never explained why all 32 of the country’s rare-earth exporters halted trade on the same day.
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