Ambassador to China likely to be replaced in autumn

Kyodo

Tokyo is considering replacing its ambassador to China when Beijing reshuffles its leadership in October, government sources said Monday.

The replacement of Uichiro Niwa, the first person with a private-sector background to fill the post, may have been influenced by controversial remarks he made on the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan.

A ruling Democratic Party of Japan official calling the move “effectively a sacking.”

Niwa’s likely successor is Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae, the Foreign Ministry’s top bureaucrat, but former Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka is also being considered.

The move would represent only the second time that a former vice foreign minister has been appointed ambassador to China since Shoji Sato, who was ambassador between 1977 and 1979.

The government is considering bringing Niwa back shortly before or after Vice President Xi Jinping succeeds President Hu Jintao as leader of the Communist Party in the once-in-a-decade leadership change, according to the sources.

Niwa is expected to attend a Chinese-sponsored event in Beijing in late September to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties, they added. Niwa, a former chairman of major trading house Itochu Corp., assumed the post in June 2010.

Pressure has been building on Niwa to step down since his remarks in a June interview with the Financial Times caused an uproar in both the ruling and opposition camps, which said they didn’t serve Japan’s best interests on the issue.

In the interview, Niwa voiced opposition to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to have the capital purchase parts of the uninhabited islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba immediately took Niwa to task because Japan regards the Senkaku Islands as an integral part of its territory and asserts that no territorial dispute exists over them.

Niwa briefly returned to Japan in mid-July to discuss with Gemba developments related to repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels into Japanese waters near the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyu and Taiwan calls the Tiaoyutai.

Some in the ministry raised questions about Niwa’s ability to act as a conduit between the two countries, following the diplomatic row over the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain by the Japan Coast Guard over collisions near the islands in September 2010.

Niwa was tapped as ambassador to China after the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009. The appointment drew attention to the importance that the DPJ-led government attached to developing a political system that is not overly dependent on bureaucrats and prompted interest in the business-oriented diplomacy expected of the former trading house chief.