Former Ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa has questioned Japan’s Sept. 11 purchase of three of the Senkaku islets, which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, suggesting the timing was less than ideal.
“Why rock the boat at such a time? I thought that while I was in China,” Niwa, 73, said Thursday at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.
The remark apparently referred to Japan’s acquisition of three of the five main islets in the Senkaku group from their private Saitama owner, just after Chinese President Hu Jintao had urged Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to refrain from taking the step.
The purchase effectively nationalized the entire islet cluster in the East China Sea, infuriating Beijing and provoking often violent protests across mainland China.
It is rare for a former ambassador to publicly criticize his government so soon after leaving his post. Niwa’s term expired Dec. 18, and his comments came only four days after Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan was trounced in the Lower House poll.
Niwa, a former chairman of major trading house Itochu Corp., became the first person from the private sector to be appointed ambassador to China. He assumed the post in June 2010 in a move highlighting the DPJ’s efforts to limit the power of bureaucrats, while prompting interest in the business-oriented diplomacy expected of the former corporate chief. Sino-Japanese relations fell to the lowest point in years during his tenure.
“Words and actions that do not lead to Japanese people’s happiness would not feel right to me no matter how they are described as being in the national interest,” Niwa said, in reference to the Senkaku purchase.
While Tokyo does not acknowledge the existence of a territorial dispute over the Japan-administered islets, called Diaoyu and claimed since the 1970s by China, Niwa said a dispute clearly exists and urged the Japanese government to acknowledge the fact.
Because Beijing has taken issue with Tokyo over the isles, Japan’s claim is “incomprehensible” to the international community, Niwa said, noting bilateral ties have entered a new “dimension,” with both sides actively asserting their territorial claims.
Niwa issued a strong warning to both Tokyo and Beijing, advising them to prevent the row from getting out of hand, stressing that military action is not an option for either country.
“We must control Sino-Japanese relations so they don’t reach a critical point” and military force is used, he said. “Diplomacy is to think what must be done for the national interests of both countries after acknowledging and overcoming the existence of a dispute. We must think about what to do in order to improve bilateral ties.”
In an interview with Britain’s Financial Times in June, Niwa stirred controversy by voicing his opposition to then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan for the metropolitan government to purchase the three islets. All three were subsequently acquired by the central government, as Noda’s hand was apparently forced by the Ishihara purchase bid.
His remarks caused an uproar among both ruling and opposition camp lawmakers, who felt they did not serve Japan’s national interests with regard to the Senkakus, which Japan first took control of in 1895.