On Wednesday (Aug. 15), the 67th anniversary of the end of World War II, seven people disembarked off a boat from Hong Kong and set foot on the Uotsuri Islet of Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Okinawa police arrested five of them, and the Japanese Coast Guard arrested two who returned to the boat plus seven others who had remained aboard it. Those who landed on the islet waved the national flags of China and Taiwan, both of which claim the islands.
The 14 activists, journalists and others were not indicted; instead, they were handed over to immigration authorities. Hoping to end the incident quickly, the Japanese government decided to deport them. That’s a wise decision as it should help prevent bilateral relations between Japan and China from deteriorating.
If the settlement of the Senkaku incident had been delayed, the standing of the Noda administration could have been weakened further, as the incident came just five days after South Korean President Lee Myung Bak landed on Takeshima Island in the Sea of Japan. That island, known as Dokdo in South Korea, is claimed by both Japan and South Korea.
On Tuesday, Mr. Lee went on to say if Japan’s Emperor visits South Korea, he should apologize to Koreans who died as independence activists during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
In September 2010, Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that had rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels inside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. Although the captain was sent to prosecution authorities, his indictment on a charge of obstructing the performance of a public duty was suspended and he was allowed to go back to China.
The release of the captain gave rise to strong domestic criticism against the Democratic Party of Japan-led government. In retaliation for his arrest, however, China took four Japanese businessmen into custody. Bilateral relations greatly deteriorated during that time.
Apparently the Noda administration wanted to avoid the same kind of outcome this time. Mr. Noda’s action followed a precedent set in March 2004, when Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was in power. Police handed over seven Chinese activists who had landed on Uotsuri Islet to immigration authorities, who then deported them.
After Wednesday’s incident, the government contacted officials in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to settle the matter quickly.
The Chinese government apparently wants to prevent the swelling of anti-Japan movements that might destabilize the domestic political situation ahead of the leadership change due to take place in China this autumn.
It is imperative that both the Japanese and Chinese governments prevent nationalistic sentiments from flaring up in both countries. A June poll showed that 69 percent of those surveyed supported Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase Uotsuri and two other Senkaku islets from a private landowner.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also plans to purchase the three islets. So he must carefully consider possible retaliatory actions by China, including massive anti-Japan demonstrations, economic retaliation, frequent violations of Japan’s territorial waters around the islands by Chinese vessels, and even military action near the islands. He cannot be too careful in how he handles the purchase plan for the Senkakus.