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Take a breather from Senkaku dispute, ex-envoy to China says

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Former Ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa has an optimistic view about Japan’s current soured relations with Beijing, saying things will probably be on the mend by cherry blossom season.

“Japan-China relations have entered a very difficult phase. . . . But I’ve been saying that by the time cherry trees blossom, there would be a warm wind and ice will be starting to melt,” Niwa, whose stint ended Dec. 18, told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Monday.

Niwa, a former chairman of trading house Itochu Corp., said his view is not one that can be explained logically but rather is based on his experiences with China, the current situation and information he has gathered. “It is time for leaders of both nations to act calmly as wise men. And there already are such movements beneath the surface.”

Japan-China ties went sour in September, when Niwa was still Tokyo’s man in Beijing. The Japanese government purchased three of the five Senkaku islets and effectively nationalized the uninhabited chain claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu. Protests broke out all over China.

Since then, Chinese vessels have repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters and a Chinese government aircraft entered Japanese airspace in December for the first time in history.

Niwa suggested that the leaders of both countries should “take a break from the issue.”

“There are three ways” to deal with issues of territorial sovereignty, he said. One is to take the case to the international court, the second option is to sell the territory and the third is to resolve the row by armed force, he said.

“When (I) think of the Senkaku issue, none of these three options are acceptable, especially the third one.”

But there is an alternative, Niwa said.

“That is to take a break . . . I mean, to cool off and to talk,” he said. It won’t resolve the territorial issue, but it’s important to talk about ways to create a system to avoid violent friction, he said.

“If we were a married couple, we could have divorced. But that isn’t an option. . . . We will be neighbors (for good), and whether we like it or not there is no choice but for us to put effort into getting along.”