Japan’s ambassador to China has warned that plans by the Tokyo municipal government to buy islands claimed by Beijing could spark an “extremely grave crisis” between east Asia’s leading powers.
Uichiro Niwa said the proposal, which Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara made in April, to purchase islands in the Senkaku group in the East China Sea would put at risk the progress achieved since the countries normalised relations in 1972.
“If Ishihara’s plans are acted upon, then it will result in an extremely grave crisis in relations between Japan and China,” Niwa told the Financial Times. “We cannot allow decades of past effort to be brought to nothing.”
His comments come amid rising territorial frictions in the waters around China. A stand-off between Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and a Philippine navy ship near a contested shoal led to diplomatic protests from Manila, while Vietnam has accused China of sabotaging marine exploration vessels.
Such incidents have boosted support among China’s neighbours for US plans to beef up its naval power in the region. Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, said at the weekend the US would deploy 60 per cent of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020, up from 50 per cent now.
The Senkaku islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China as the Diaoyu, have long been considered one of east Asia’s most dangerous flashpoints. A clash between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coastguard in the area in 2010 disrupted diplomatic and economic exchanges for months.
Niwa’s remarks are by far the strongest sign of Japanese central government disquiet over Ishihara’s scheme to buy three of the Senkaku islands.
The central government currently rents the islands and bans landings in order to avoid friction with Beijing. Ishihara, who has long opposed this conciliatory approach, in April announced plans for the Japanese capital to buy them from their private owner for possible development.
Niwa said that while Ishihara’s scheme could face legal and other obstacles, even a possible pre-purchase survey of the islands could be diplomatically incendiary.
Such a crisis would affect business relations, warned Niwa, a former chair of trading house Itochu and who in 2010 became the first Japanese ambassador to the People’s Republic of China to be appointed from the private sector.
Sino-Japanese economic ties have expanded rapidly in recent decades. Total bilateral trade between Japan and China was more than Y27tn ($345bn) last year, according to Japan’s finance ministry. Japanese foreign direct investment in China soared nearly 50 per cent in 2011 to $6.3bn, Chinese government data show.
Lingering animosity from past conflict and China’s rapidly growing power make the Sino-Japanese relationship one of the world’s most sensitive diplomatic faultlines.
Japanese central government officials have previously offered only low-key reactions to Ishihara’s plans. In April, Koichiro Gemba, foreign minister, called for China and Japan to both deal with the issue “in a calm manner”.
One option for the central government is to buy the islands itself, an approach that the main opposition Liberal Democratic party is considering including in its manifesto for Japan’s next general election.
However, even a central government purchase would likely anger China, which has in recent years been increasingly assertive in pushing its claim to sovereignty over the islands and other disputed maritime territories.
Ishihara’s plan could face obstacles in the form of opposition from the Tokyo municipal assembly or taxpayers complaining city funds could be better spent. But his effort to buy the islands has been bolstered by a wave of public donations to a special account set up to help fund the purchase.
The governor announced on Friday that the fund had received 70,000 donations totalling over Y1bn in just over a month.
“It would be the best if we could buy the islands with donations because we wouldn’t have to use taxpayers’ money,” Kyodo news agency quoted Ishihara as saying.