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     Apr 20, 2012

Tokyo eyes prime island real estate
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - Although this year marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China, storm clouds have gathered in the East China Sea.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, 79, a long-time hardline conservative who always calls China "Shina", a derogatory Japanese term, has said the Tokyo metropolitan government will buy three of the disputed Senkaku Islands, irritating Beijing.

Ishihara is connected by marriage to former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who paid frequent visits to the Yasukuni shrine - which honors Japan's war dead, included convicted war criminals - which were strongly criticized by China


and South Korea.

Ishihara's surprising comments could dampen improving relations with China, which hit their lowest point in years in late 2010 in the wake of the arrest and eventual release of a Chinese fishing boat captain near the disputed Senkaku Islands (known by China as the Diaoyu Islands).

While the Chinese government is still showing restraint in its response to the eccentric Japanese politician's behavior, current Sino-Japanese political ties could be tested further if Ishihara goes ahead with the planned purchase.

"Tokyo will protect the Senkaku Islands, whatever other nations dislike," Ishihara said on Monday during his visit to Washington at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank. "Who dares to complain about Japanese nationals trying to defend Japan's soil?"

The disputed Senkaku Islands are about 400 kilometers from both Okinawa's main island and Fuzhou, capital of southeast China's Fujian province. Going by Japan's administrative boundary, the islands belong to Ishigaki city of Okinawa prefecture.

The island chain consists of five uninhabited islands - Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima, Minami-Kojima, Kubajima and Taishojima - plus a scattering of rocks nearby. Only Taishojima is owned by the Japanese government, while the other four islands are owned by Japanese citizens.

The Japanese central government has rented Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima from their private owner since 2002 by paying 24.5 million yen (US$300,000) as an annual rental fee in order to maintain and control their stability. Kubajima and Taishojima were used as firing ranges by US armed forces.

Both China and Taiwan started to claim sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the 1970s, after the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East issued a report in 1969 indicating the possibility of abundant natural resources such as oil and gas reserves on the seabed around the islands. The area is a major fishing ground.

Ishihara said the Tokyo metropolitan government had already reached a basic agreement with landowners on buying the three islands of Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima, adding, ''If we leave them as they are, we don't know what will happen to the islands.''

As if motivated by Ishihara's move, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Wednesday suggested that the central government would not rule out the possibility of buying the disputed Senkaku Islands from their current private owners.

When asked at a Diet (parliament) session about the possibility of nationalizing the islands, Noda said, "We want to consider every option while fully ascertaining the intentions of the current owners."

China has warned that Ishihara's plan would not only harm Japan's ties with China, but also its international standing.

"We do not wish such statements in Japan to encroach on China's sovereignty and harm China-Japan ties," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular news briefing. "A few politicians have repeatedly made such statements. I believe they not only damage the overall state of China-Japan relations but also harm Japan's international image." China is Japan's largest trading partner.

Unlike in the 2010 Senkaku boat collision incident, China still seems to avoid overacting because doing so could play into the hands of nationalistic Ishihara.

Ishihara also drew anger among Taiwanese, with the island's Foreign Ministry issuing a protest against Ishihara's intention to buy the islands.

"The Tiaoyutais are the inherent territory of the Republic of China and we have sovereignty over them," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman James Chang said. In Taiwan, the islands are called the Tiaoyutais.

Ishihara's comments also caused bewilderment among political circles in Tokyo.

"Ishihara's plan has no reality," a lawmaker who served as a deputy chief cabinet secretary and a vice minister in recent administrations told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "If diplomatic and security problems occur in the wake of Tokyo's purchase of those islands, what can Tokyo do actually? I think he just floated a trial balloon to see the public reaction."

"Ishihara is really a troublemaker," political analyst Minoru Morita told Asia Times Online. "He wants to gain popularity by stirring up anti-Chinese feeling among Japanese people. This is just childish politics."

"The Japanese media just genuflect before Ishihara," Morita said. "Instead of criticizing him, the media are stirring up nationalism."

According to Morita, Ishihara is now confronted with a hopeless situation in bidding for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games for Tokyo after the lavish and unsuccessful campaigns by Ishihara regarding Tokyo's bid for the 2016 Olympics.

"By fanning Beijing's flames of ire, Ishihara aims to blame China for his mistake on the Olympics," Morita said.

In the whirlwind of international politics, domestic politics do matter. With the popularity of the ruling the Democracy Party of Japan declining in the run-up to general elections, which must be held by the end of August 2013, Ishihara is reportedly willing to return to national politics. He is widely believed to head a new political party in the near future. Many seasoned lawmakers seem ready to move to join that party.

He also has developed a personal collaborative relationship with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who heads Osaka Ishin no Kai, or the Osaka Restoration Association, the Japanese version of the US Tea Party .

Ukeru Magosaki, the former chief of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's international intelligence bureau, also criticized the Tokyo governor.

Magosaki wrote in his book on Japanese territorial issues that both Chinese and Japanese national leaders such as Deng Xiaoping had shelved the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands wisely.

"Japan currently controls and administers the islands," Magosaki said. "There is no need for Japan to rock the boat."

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also writes for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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