Japan’s ambassador to China warned last month that plans by the Tokyo municipal government to buy islands in the East China Sea claimed by Beijing but administered by Japan could trigger an “extremely grave crisis” between East Asia’s two top powers.

Uichiro Niwa, a former chairman of the Itochu trading conglomerate who in 2010 became the first Japanese ambassador to Beijing appointed from the private sector, told Britain’s Financial Times that the move would damage key economic ties between China and Japan, which has been overtaken by the former as the world’s second largest economy.

In a provocative move, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a high-profile Japanese nationalist, launched an appeal in April for money to purchase islands in the disputed Senkaku group, which China calls the Diaoyu islands.

Niwa said that if the planned transfer of the islands to Japanese government ownership went ahead, it would undermine progress in building links between the two countries as they mark the 40th anniversary since relations were normalized in 1972.

China and Japan have a history of animosity stemming from Japan’s invasion and often-brutal occupation of parts of China before World War II. Meanwhile, China’s rapid military modernization in recent years and its increasingly assertive claims to the disputed East China Sea islands, and surrounding waters and seabed containing valuable fisheries and energy resources, have alarmed Japan, raising mistrust.

Niwa’s comments were an unusually blunt public warning from a senior Japanese diplomat to his own government, one that prompted the government’s top spokesman to issue a rebuke and disown the remarks as “personal opinions.”

But Niwa’s concerns are now looking ominously prophetic, following China’s decision to send three fisheries patrol ships to the Senkakus in an intensified reassertion of its claims to sovereignty over the five uninhabited islands in the chain.

Coming in the midst of the annual ASEAN-led meetings last week in Phnom Penh with regional and extra-regional countries, including China, Japan and the United States, the resurgence of Sino-Japanese tensions was an unwelcome reminder that there are two major maritime flash points in East Asia, one in the East China Sea between China and Japan, and the other in South China Sea involving China, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian states.

At present, Japan’s central government only owns one of the five islands in the Senkaku group. It rents the other four from private owners and bans landings on them by anyone other than authorized officials, to minimise friction with Beijing.

Ishihara’s appeal to raise money for the Tokyo municipal government to buy three of these islands has already raised the equivalent of over $17 million. He wants to “protect” the islands from possible Chinese encroachment, evidently by encouraging Japanese development and settlement.

Alarmed at the prospect of the central government losing control of a majority of the Senkakus and sparking a crisis with China, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced shortly before the ASEAN meetings that his administration was considering buying the three islands, instead of Ishihara’s municipal authority.

However, it only served to infuriate China. Meeting on July 11 on the sidelines of the ASEAN conclave, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Kemba that China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the Senkakus must be respected by Japan.

This may be easier said than done. Either purchase, by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government or the central government, will accentuate Japan’s official ownership of the Senkakus. The official Xinhua news agency accused Japan on July 9 of “playing with fire” over a sensitive territorial dispute.

Will China exercise restraint? As its once-in-a-decade leadership transition approaches later this year, pressure from hardline military circles and other nationalists may be difficult to resist.

Reflecting this pressure, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that China’s “holy territory is not allowed to be bought and sold by anyone.” He added that the Chinese government would continue to take “necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty.”

Suggestions in China on how this should be done include increasing Chinese sea patrols around the Senkakus, landings on the islands by activists from the mainland or Hong Kong, and challenging the legality of Japan’s jurisdiction over Okinawa, a key U.S. base in southern Japan that serves as the administrative center for the Senkakus.

Major Gen. Luo Yuan, who is known for his hawkish views, even suggested that China should use areas near the Senkakus for military exercises, including guided missile tests, and should make one island an air force live firing range.

“Each time Japan takes one step, we should take one and half or even two steps forward, making Japan aware of the grave consequences caused by its aggression against China,” said a July 9 editorial in the Global Times, a publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper that often serves as a nationalist forum.

Any of these measures would inflame tensions with Japan and intensify anti-China sentiment. This would not be in the interests of either country or regional stability.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.