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Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012
Japan has its hands full with multiple territorial rows
Senkakus aside, disputes with Russia, S. Korea refuse to go away
While recent headlines have fixated on the flareup between Japan and China over competing claims to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Tokyo also faces major challenges in the form of territorial disputes with South Korea and Russia.
As anti-Japan protests erupted across China and Chinese vessels closed in on the Senkaku Islands, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's administration appeared stunned by China's fierce reaction to the government's purchase of three of the five islets from their private owner.
The Sept. 11 purchase of the islets, known in Chinese as Diaoyu, was "aimed not to cause ripples," a government source said. "I don't understand why it turned out this way."
Administration officials apparently figured that nationalizing the islets outright would be preferable to allowing their purchase by Tokyo's nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who said in April that the metropolitan government would buy and exercise greater control over the uninhabited islets.
Officials had hoped that the Chinese would show some understanding.
This, as it turned out, has not been the case.
China appears united in its opposition to the development — all the way up to President Hu Jintao, who told Noda in a chat in Russia earlier this month that China considers Japan's move to be "illegal and invalid."
Tokyo is urging Beijing to respond to the matter calmly and with an open mind, arguing that the purchase was intended to ensure the administration of the islets in a "calm and stable manner," as in the past.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has expressed fears that a potential blowup could destabilize the region.
"Obviously, we are concerned by the demonstrations, and we are concerned by the conflict that is taking place over the Senkaku Islands," Panetta said last week in Tokyo.
"It is in everybody's interest for Japan and China to maintain good relations and to find a way to avoid further escalation," added Panetta, who had stopped in Tokyo en route to Beijing after tensions hit their apex.
But given that the Noda administration has dug in its heels on the purchase and is in no mood to reverse course, a government source involved in arranging the purchase noted the difficulties surrounding the issue.
"There is no room for a compromise," the source said.
Compounding the matter was the sudden death of Ambassador to China Shinichi Nishimiya less than a week after the government approved his appointment. He had been scheduled to go to Beijing to try to patch up the frayed ties between the world's second- and third-largest economies.
"Japan and China had put their territorial issue on the shelf for years. By nationalizing the islands, Japan pushed China to the edge of a cliff," said Motofumi Asai, who headed the Foreign Ministry's China and Mongolia division before leaving the government in 1990.
"China would not buy Japan's argument that nationalizing the islands was better than having them bought by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government," Asai said.
In addition to the situation with China, Japan also lays claim to a pair of South Korean-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan and to Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
Japan's relations with South Korea deteriorated significantly after President Lee Myung Bak traveled in August to the islands known in Japan as Takeshima and in South Korea as Dokdo. It was the first-ever such visit by a South Korean president.
Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador in protest, and proposed that the two countries jointly bring the dispute to the International Court of Justice for mediation, a move Seoul rejected out of hand.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Noda and Lee separately that their interests lay in making sure they work together in a concerted manner. "And I think that's being heard," she said at a news conference.
Speaking to reporters last week, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba pledged to respond calmly to the dispute with South Korea, saying he and Panetta agreed during their meeting that cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea remains important and their security cooperation "should not be stalled."
Meanwhile, Japan also remains saddled with its long-standing territorial dispute with Russia, which took a turn for the worse in November 2010 when then-President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Kunashiri, one of the islands claimed by Japan.
Japan denounced the trip, the first to the disputed territory by a Russian leader, which has chilled bilateral ties and kept the two countries from working to resolve the dispute.
There appeared to be some progress this year as Vladimir Putin, who returned to the Russian presidency in May, agreed with Noda the following month to instruct their foreign ministries to hold substantive negotiations.
The Japanese and Russian governments are now planning to hold a vice foreign ministerial meeting in Tokyo next month to start tackling the dispute and prepare the ground for a visit by Noda to Russia in December.
Still, Tokyo and Moscow remain far apart in their positions concerning the islands, seized by the Soviet Union following Japan's surrender in World War II in August 1945.
Cultural website altered
The Cultural Affairs Agency says its website on government-designated cultural assets was altered last weekend to display an image of the Chinese national flag on one of the Senkaku Islands.
Access to the website from China sharply increased last Wednesday and the agency has asked the Metropolitan Police Department to look into a possible link between the rise in access and the alteration.
The image on the website showed a Chinese flag planted on Uotsuri, one of the Senkaku islets claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu. The image was accompanied by a statement in Chinese that the island is Chinese territory.
The website allows users to search for national treasures and important cultural assets, and does not contain information related to the Senkakus.