A SMALL fish like Taiwan, diplomatically isolated as it is, does not often pick a fight with both of Asia’s largest economies at the same time. But this disputed island chain, known to Japan as the Senkaku islands and to China as the Diaoyus, is casting its strange spell across the whole of the East China Sea. A fierce shootout with water-cannon broke out between Japan’s coast guard and Taiwan’s on the morning of September 25th. The Japanese side was trying to repel an armada of almost 60 Taiwanese fishing vessels, which had sailed irritatingly near the islets, by blasting some of them with deck-mounted water cannon. Taiwan’s patrol boats retaliated by firing back with their own high-pressure hoses at the Japanese coastguard ships, all the while booming over loudspeakers that these rocks are the sovereign territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) and that the Japanese vessels must leave Taiwan’s territory immediately. The fishing fleet managed to sail within three nautical miles (5.5km) of the disputed islands, before being turned back by the Japanese side. Meanwhile Taiwan’s navy dispatched frigates to the country’s north-eastern coast and scrambled warplanes, such as F-16s and Mirages, to monitor the civilian armada, according to a statement issued by the defence ministry on September 26th. The point, they say, was to be prepared for any eventuality. The president, Ma Ying-jeou, lent his support too, not missing a chance to add that the waters around the contested islands have been fishing grounds for Taiwan’s fishermen for more than 100 years.