A long simmering spat between China and Japan about the sovereignty over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea boiled over again last week and is—again—denting scientific cooperation. Japan controls the five islets and some nearby rocks, which it calls the Senkakus and China knows as the Diaoyu. (Taiwan also claims what it says are the Tiaoyutai Islands.) The Japanese government's 11 September decision to purchase three of the islets from the family that has owned them for several decades has resulted in anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, saber-rattling on both sides, and a plea from U.S. officials to settle the issue peacefully. It is also having scientific repercussions. On 15 September, the China Association for Science and Technology, an umbrella organization representing more than 160 professional societies, posted a statement on its Web site claiming that the purchase represented "a gross violation of China's territorial sovereignty, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and undermined bilateral relations," according to China's Xinhua news agency. The Chinese side postponed a China-Japan University Fair and Forum scheduled for later this month, according to a Japanese notice posted today by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. And Japanese newspapers reported that China has suspended a plan to donate a pair of crested ibises to a Japanese captive breeding program aiming to restore the rare species to its historical range through parts of the Japanese archipelago.
Whether more retaliatory measures are in the works remains to be seen. But something similar happened 2 years ago after a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessels inflamed tensions and led China to cancel a number of high-level scientific contacts. (China also restricted supplies of rare earth metals to Japan, a move that alerted the world to the fact that the Chinese had a near-monopoly on materials essential to a whole range of high-tech products. Subsequently, Japan, the United States, and other countries launched programs to find alternative materials and alternative sources. This time, so far, there are no reports of a squeeze on supplies of key materials.)
Two years ago, the disruption of scientific contacts caused some embarrassment and consternation but did not last long, according to an official at a Japanese agency involved in academic exchanges who did not have authorization to speak to the press and so asked not to be identified. The source hopes the situation will calm down this time as well. "This is a political issue; it shouldn't affect scientific matters," the source says.