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In shark-infested waters, resolve of two giants is tested

SENKAKU/DIAOYU ISLANDS – The voyage to these remote islands at the center of one of Asia’s most heated territorial disputes is a bone-jarring seven-hour boat ride from one of Japan’s southernmost ports, a long enough journey that the fishermen who brave the often stormy seas regularly sail in pairs for safety. The trip from the mainland of China, which also lays claim to the islands, is even longer.
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The waters around the islands are believed to be infested with man-eating sharks. And the islands themselves, while tropical, are hardly postcard quality. Uotsuri, the largest of the five islands, is nothing more than a pair of craggy gray mountains with steep, boulder-strewn slopes that rise 1,000 feet almost straight from the water’s edge.
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Two nearby islands are nothing more than large rocks covered by scruffy shrubs and bird droppings. The only structure on the islands is Uotsuri’s small, unmanned lighthouse. No one has lived on any of the islands since World War II.
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The value of the islands has never been in their aesthetics, but in history and geopolitics: what control of the islands says about the relative power of Asia’s two economic giants, one rising and the other in what many see as a slow decline.
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It remains unclear how far the longstanding territorial conflict over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, could escalate now that it has flared again. China has in recent days tamped down protests that were seeming to slip beyond its control, and the two countries share deep economic ties that make the stakes of further escalation clear. But popular opinion in China has been unwilling to let the issue die, and a small group of nationalists in Japan has so far seemed unwilling to let go of an issue that helps define it.
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