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Friday, June 1, 2012

Ishihara rattling U.S. saber at China


Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, long famous for his dislike of the United States, is singing a new tune as China rapidly builds up its naval capacity in resource-rich Asian waters.

News photo
Singing a new tune: Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara delivers a speech at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington on April 17. KYODO

Even Japan's foremost nationalist has apparently started to think U.S. support is essential to respond to the maritime challenge posed by the fast-growing giant on the mainland.

In mid-April, the outspoken 79-year-old former novelist stunned the central government by saying the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to buy some of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.

The controversial announcement — coming in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington — was widely interpreted as trying to goad the central government into taking control of the privately owned islands.

Some analysts, however, say Ishihara was not merely aiming his comments at a Japanese audience and that he wanted to prompt nations squaring off against China to make more efforts to bolster ties with the United States to ensure maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ishihara's announcement at least increased public awareness of the Senkaku issue, helping the Tokyo Metropolitan Government receive more than ¥950 million in donations from people as of the end of May to buy three of the uninhabited islets from a Saitama businessman who technically holds title to them.

The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has drawn criticism for its qualms about nationalizing some of the islets out of consideration of China.

"In that sense, Ishihara was able to achieve one of his aims," a source familiar with U.S.-Japan relations said. But he added that "Ishihara's comment could only provoke China."

Concerns over Beijing's growing assertiveness in the East China Sea have been intensifying since a clash in 2010 between two Japanese patrol boats and a Chinese trawler near the islands.

"If a military conflict between Japan and China really erupts, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has no way to handle it," the source said. "Ishihara is nothing but irresponsible."

The governor shrugs off such criticism, implying he intentionally irked China with an eye to possible support from the United States.

The Japan-U.S. security treaty would be "invoked immediately" if China launches military action near the Senkakus, Ishihara said at a news conference in Tokyo in late April, emphasizing that the disputed islands are an integral part of Japanese territory.

"Japan should defend itself in cooperation with the United States, and in some cases, should speak up (against China) while threatening the invocation of the (Japan-U.S.) security treaty," he said.

It is obvious that Ishihara is keeping in mind that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed in September 2010 that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the treaty, which allows for Washington to retaliate against a military strike on Japanese territory.

In his 1989 book "The Japan That Can Say No," which he coauthored with the late Sony Corp. Chairman Akio Morita, Ishihara said Japan should tell the United States that it can protect itself.

But Ishihara, who has called Japan "America's mistress," now appears to be aware that it is impossible to counter China's military buildup without U.S. support.

As Japan's power is weakening in every field, including the economy and defense, "Mr. Ishihara seems to be considering how to drag the United States" into maritime confrontations with China, said Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University.

Ishihara's change of heart underscores that countries competing with China — in particular Japan but also the Philippines and Vietnam, two nations displeased with Beijing's claims in the South China Sea — are being forced into growing more dependent on the United States.

Chinese boats have been repeatedly spotted in a contiguous zone near the Senkakus in the East China Sea, while Philippine and Chinese ships have recently been locked in a standoff in the South China Sea.

Beijing has referred to the waters as being part of "China's core interests," the expression it uses for Taiwan and other territorial problems where independence sentiment continues to smolder, fanning fears about China's military rise.

Washington, meanwhile, is strategically shifting its military focus to the Asia-Pacific region, believing stability in the area could help boost economic growth there, which in turn could have a favorable effect on America's economy.

"U.S. interests clearly coincide with those of nations in the Asia-Pacific region frustrated by China," Kawakami said. "The United States could strengthen relations with anti-China countries further, which would change the security situation in the region."

Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, the latter of which actually battled China in the South China Sea in the 1980s, have conducted joint drills with the U.S. Navy, apparently aiming to enhance deterrence with an eye on China.

Other analysts say Ishihara has also indicated Japan should take the initiative in reinforcing its alliance with the United States as a way to hamper China's ambitions for dominance, and that Southeast Asian nations expect Japan to do so.

"Our country has had no greater friends than the United States and Japan," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said in a speech last year.

Significantly, he added: "Time has proven that we can count on allies like them, and I am confident that they will stand by us should there be a threat again to our security and sovereignty."

The protracted disputes in the South China Sea are one of the most serious long-term security concerns in the region.

China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian nations — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have conflicting territorial and maritime claims over parts or all of about 100 islands, atolls, reefs and cays believed to sit atop vast natural oil and gas deposits.

For Japan, stability in the South China Sea is "very important too," because oil the country imports from the Middle East is carried through the disputed waters, said Tomohito Shinoda, a professor at the International University of Japan.

To prevent China from expanding its maritime activities further, it is "appropriate" for Japan to bolster ties with other countries, including Southeast Asian nations, centered on the Japan-U.S. alliance, Shinoda said.

Ishihara, who became the Tokyo governor in 1999, is the elder brother of the late Yujiro Ishihara, who was a top film star. Yujiro, who died at age 52 in 1987, was a prominent singer as well.

"As I recall, Shintaro has said he can sing better than Yujiro," said a former TV worker in Tokyo. "His new song for the United States could have a certain impact on security in the Asia-Pacific region."

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