As the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties on between Japan and China on Sept. 29, 1972, draws near, friction between the two neighboring countries is increasing over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Both sides must refrain from taking provocative actions and handle the issue in a cool-headed manner.

Friction especially intensified after Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara announced on April 16 in Washington that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would buy most of the Senkaku Islands from their private landowner and stated, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will defend the Senkaku Islands.” At first China’s response was relatively calm, but it has been becoming increasingly vocal in its criticism as shown by articles in the People’s Daily.

The Financial Times on June 7 reported that Japan’s ambassador to China, Mr. Uichiro Niwa, strongly criticized Gov. Ishihara’s plan to buy three Senkaku islets. In an interview with the newspaper, he said that the envisioned purchase could result in an “extremely grave crisis” in economic ties and other aspects of Japan-China bilateral relations. He also said that even a mere prepurchase survey of the islets could be “diplomatically incendiary” and that “We cannot allow decades of past efforts to (come to) nothing.”

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba immediately admonished Mr. Niwa over the remarks, saying that his personal views “differ from the stance of the government.” Mr. Genba said that the change of the ownership is a domestic matter that does not concern the international community. Gov. Ishihara called on the government to sack Mr. Niwa.

Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands is clearly legitimate under international law. Still Mr. Niwa’s apprehensions are correct. It must also be pointed out that if Gov. Ishihara’s purchase plan is carried out and tensions between Japan and China rise, he has no legal power to resolve the issue.

Four years ago, Japan and China agreed to jointly develop natural gas in the East China Sea while shelving the issue related to demarcation of each other’s exclusive economic zone in the area. The agreement means China’s de facto acceptance of Japan’s effective rule over the Senkaku Islands and agreement to shelve the dispute. Japan and China should strive to realize the spirit of the May 2008 joint statement, which called for making the East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.

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