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Posted at 01:13 PM ET, 09/05/2012

Tensions simmering between U.S., China over uninhabited islands’ ownership

Japan’s move to buy several nearby uninhabited islands Wednesday was intended to maintain relative peace with China, which also claims ownership of the islands.

But the decision is likely to inflame China-Japan relations further, as disputes between the two countries over the territories have escalated in recent months.

Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea

Now, the United States has been drawn into the debate, as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Wednesday that, “the United States should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

By “sovereignty,” Wen was referring to territorial disputes that have become major flash points between China and its neighbors. The United States has been increasingly vocal in supporting a less belligerent, collaborative negotiation process,” the Washington Post’s William Wan reported.

The U.S. has so far avoided taking an official stance on the islands’ ownership, although diplomats have been asked to take sides. A Chinese reporter gained fame on Chinese social networks last week after pressing U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether the U.S. considers the islands to be Chinese or Japanese.

Reporter Ran Wei from China’s state Xinhua News Agency began by asking Nuland for the official U.S. name for the uninhabited islands, which are known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China:

RW: What is the official name for the Senkaku Islands for the United States? Is it the Diaoyu Islands or the Senkaku Islands? Or both are okay?

VN: I’m going to my special little rocks cheat sheet here because, this is getting quite complicated with different things here.

RW: Yes, do you have one?

VN: So, make sure I get it, get it right here… So… As we’ve said, we call them the Senkakus, so, if that’s the question that you’re asking. We don’t take a position on them though, as we’ve said all the way through.

The reporter then pivoted to asking whether the islands are covered by a defense treaty between the United States and Japan, which would imply the United States considers them to be Japanese. Nuland reasserted the official, neutral line and moved on to another question.

RW: So you don’t take a position on them, but on the other hand, you think that the islands are covered by the defense treaty between Japan and the United States, right?

VN: Yes, we’ve consistently said that we see them falling under the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty.

RW: Do you think that is contradictory? ‘Coz for me, that sounds contradictory. You said you don’t have a position on the sovereignty of the islands, but on the other hand you said it’s covered under the Treaty, which only protects Japanese territories.

VN: But this is because the Senkakus have been under the administrative control of the government of Japan since they were returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa since 1972.

RW: So let me rephrase my question: Do you regard the Islands as Japanese territory?

VN: Again, we don’t take a position on the Islands, but we do assert that they are covered under the treaty.

RW: So you think the Islands is under the administration of…

VN: I think I’ve answered the question. Let me call…

RW: No, you don’t have…

Commentators on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging network, applauded the journalist for his bravery.

“Many people say that asking the U.S. government for its stance on the question of a Chinese territory may make us seem very unconfident,” one commentator wrote. “But isn’t it the reality? From the actual effect of what was in that video, compared with the diplomatic language we are used to, questions like his are actually more direct and can gain respect from others easier.”

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By  |  01:13 PM ET, 09/05/2012

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