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Getting China's Goat?

3:41 PM, Apr 7, 2008 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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The Ishigaki city council, in the Okinawa prefecture of Japan, has passed a resolution allowing the capture of goats on the Uotsuri Island. Satellite images show that overgrazing by the goats is endangering the island's delicate ecosystem. Ishigaki city councilmen plan to seek the National Diet's (parliamentary) approval, as well as support from the executive branch, for their initiative.

The Uotsuri is the largest of a group of eight islets measuring a total of 2.7 square miles. Known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, in China as the Diaoyu Islands, and in Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands, they are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

In 1978, members of the ultra-nationalist Japan Youth Association built a lighthouse on the Uotsuri as a symbol of Japanese sovereignty. Ownership and management of the lighthouse was transferred from the group to the Japanese government in 2005.

Over the years, activists from China and Taiwan have tried repeatedly to land on the island to protest Japan's assertion of sovereignty. The erection of a second lighthouse and the raising of a Japanese flag on the Senkakus in 1996 ignited a storm of protest from both China and Taiwan. In September of that year, four protesters jumped into the East China Sea after Japanese patrol boats blocked their ship from approaching the Uotsuri. One of the protestors, an activist from Hong Kong named David Chan, drowned.

In 2006, the director of the Japanese Coast Guard described the islands as "uninhabited, except for a few goats." The goats, however, are not native to the Uotsuri. The Japanese activists who built the lighthouse in 1978 were given by their supporters a pair of goats to be used for food. Upon completion of the lighthouse, the goats were set free on the island. Their descendants now number more than 1,000.

Any act of sovereignty over the disputed islands -- or their goats -- threatens to have serious diplomatic consequences.

In March 2005, Beijing expressed "firm opposition" to the Ishigaki city council's proposal to enact an ordinance establishing an official "Senkaku Island Day," calling it "unlawful and invalid." Later that year, the city council appropriated 1.6 million yen for an inspection tour of the Senkakus by the mayor and city councilmen. The act was regarded by China as a serious provocation.

A landing by Japanese goat snatchers may result in China and Japan once again locking horns.