The Japanese government has reached an agreement to purchase three islets of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from the landowner for some ¥2.05 billion. The agreement has drawn a fierce reaction from China, which also claims the islands. It called the purchase “illegal and invalid.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China “will take necessary measures to defend its sovereignty.”

But China, and Japan for that matter, should exercise self-restraint in the Senkaku issue. It is imperative for both to look at the big picture and seek ways that will bring mutual benefits. They should realize that a flareup over the islands could jeopardize the foundations of their bilateral relationship.

The government plan to purchase the islets started in reaction to a plan announced in Washington by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in April to buy the Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima islets — which, with two other islets, form the Senkakus — from the landowner. Citizens have donated more than ¥1.4 billion to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for Mr. Ishihara’s plan.

If his plan had materialized, it would have invited more adverse reaction from China because Mr. Ishihara has made provocative statements about China and expressed a desire to land on the Senkakus.

Mr. Ishihara was irresponsible from the first. Because the metropolitan government has no power over diplomacy, defense and maritime safety, it would not have been able to cope with the deterioration of the Japan-China relationship if it had been able to purchase the islets.

Although China was apparently upset by the central government’s purchase of the islets, it should realize that if the metropolitan government had purchased the islets, the situation would have worsened even from China’s viewpoint.

The central government has turned down Mr. Ishihara’s proposal that it build a jetty for fishing boats in the Senkakus. That’s a wise decision as it will prevent friction from growing between Japan and China. With the purchase of the three isles, the central government will continue to control them, including imposing restrictions on anyone wishing to land there, even Japanese nationals.

In the latest spat over the Senkakus, Japan acted coolheadedly. When 14 activists aboard a Hong Kong boat arrived near Uotsuri islet on Aug. 15 and some came ashore, Japan did not indict them; instead, it deported them back to China. The central government has rejected the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s request to land on the Senkakus to do a land survey.

On Aug. 27, Chinese citizens stopped Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa’s official car in Beijing and ripped the Japanese flag from his vehicle. This is an abhorrent crime. China promptly arrested two Chinese and put them in five days’ administrative detention. It must be understood that Beijing could not have acted more strongly because it is now a politically sensitive time with the leadership transition planned next month.

Both Japan and China should realize the basic fact that shelving the Senkaku issue will benefit both. Still, Japan needs to strengthen the ability of the Japan Coast Guard to protect the Senkakus and territorial waters around them.

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