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Monday, Aug. 6, 2012

A choice to confront China

Special to The Japan Times

STOCKHOLM — Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's plans to purchase four of the Senkaku islands from their private owner using the Tokyo municipal government's own funds have caused controversy over the past months. Ishihara's aim is to solidify Japan's effective control as well as stir up some discord between Japan and China.

The plan was even backed with a fund, accepting public donations, to aid the Tokyo government in the purchase. At the time of writing this fund had received a staggering ¥1.38 billion in donations.

In response, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has announced the central government's own consideration of purchasing the islands. It seems that this was Ishihara's plan all along: to force the government into action.

Thus Ishihara's move was successful — the central government will purchase the islands, an act many believe will increase Japan's "effective control" of them. Meanwhile, it has created discord in the Sino-Japanese relationship, again a likely desired-outcome from the perspective of Ishihara and other nationalists.

It is worth comparing the current events to the last major incident: the events of autumn 2010, when a Japan Coast Guard vessel and a Chinese fishing trawler collided in the islands' waters. When the captain of the fishing trawler was arrested and sent to the prosecutors, Beijing responded with what was described at the time as "diplomatic shock and awe."

So far, Beijing's response to the island-purchase plan has been relatively muted. When the central government announces more concrete plans, Beijing's response will no doubt become more severe. Nonetheless, assuming the central government goes ahead with the purchase, there is some hope that Beijing's response will not result in the kind of escalation witnessed in 2010.

In 2010 the attempted prosecution of the trawler captain was an unprecedented move. Previously, Chinese citizens arrested on or near the islands were deported, even when, as in a case in 2004, they were suspected of destroying private property. A successful prosecution of a Chinese citizen for alleged crimes committed on or near the islands would create a new precedent, substantially changing the status quo of the dispute and improving Japan's position.

China will not allow its position in the dispute to be harmed by such new precedents.

The government purchase of the islands, however, is not entirely without precedent. In 2002, the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi leased the islands from their owner, ostensibly to better control access to them by activists wishing to create friction.

In this sense, the move was successful, as the number of activist landings was reduced, and those who did land were subjected to hefty fines. It had another effect, as it was perceived by many to increase Japan's "effective control" over the islands. Although Beijing protested the move, there was little it could do as the lease was presented as a fait accompli — that is to say, the actual lease began months before it was reported in the media, leaving Beijing with little recourse to force Japan to rescind the move.

It is much easier to prevent such a move than to force its rescission. Furthermore, the move was sold as an intervention to prevent future conflict rather than to stir it up.

While the dispute has seen many flareups over the years, the most dangerous escalation has taken place, as in 2010, when one state attempted to unilaterally change the status quo. In contrast, the leaders of each state have shown reciprocal understanding of the difficulty of managing nonstate actors, be they activists or local politicians.

This is evidenced by Japan's policy of deporting (but never prosecuting) Chinese activists who land on the islands, or China's policy of relatively low-level diplomatic protests in response to Japanese activists and politicians who do the same.

Thus the fact that the Noda administration is responding to prevent a local politician from involving himself with the dispute, and is doing so in a manner that has some precedent, provides further hope that Beijing may not escalate the issue to the levels seen in 2010.

Yet such a peaceful outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. In both China and Japan, there are a variety of actors who involve themselves in the dispute with their own agenda.

Noda himself criticized the Koizumi administration in the aforementioned incident in 2004 and responded by proposing a successful Diet resolution calling for the "maintenance of inherent territory."

Meanwhile, China is preparing for the first major change in the top leadership in 10 years. This adds an unpredictable element to the situation. Therefore, if Noda wants to maintain peace and stability, he must handle the purchase in a calm and restrained manner, just as the Koizumi administration did in 2004.

Finally, if somehow the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is allowed to purchase the islands, the effect on Sino-Japanese relations could be catastrophic. Ishihara has repeatedly called for some form of development of the islands. Such unprecedented moves would force Beijing's hand and seriously jeopardize peaceful Sino-Japanese relations.

It appears that Ishihara desires confrontation with China, as it would further his other political aims. The Japanese ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, called Ishihara's plan "diplomatically incendiary" and warned that it could trigger a major crisis.

Given his position, Niwa is likely to understand as well as anyone the grave repercussions.

Paul O'Shea is a postdoctoral fellow at the European Institute of Japanese Studies, Stockholm School of Economics.

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