China ups the ante in its row with Japan over Senkaku Islands

September 12, 2012

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

China, enraged at the Japanese government's decision to purchase three of the disputed Senkaku Islands from private ownership, turned up the heat with a veiled threat to use military force to bolster its claim.

Geng Yansheng, a defense ministry spokesman, said Sept. 11, "We are watching developments closely and reserve the right to take reciprocal measures."

It is highly unusual for a defense ministry official to even hint at possible military action in the longstanding row over the islands in the East China Sea that are called Diaoyu in Chinese.

"Japan has come up with all sorts of excuses to expand its military capabilities ... and repeatedly stirred up trouble on the Diaoyu issue," Geng said. "The Chinese government and armed forces stand firm and are unshakable in their determination to safeguard the nation's sovereignty and territory."

His remarks followed a pledge the previous day by Premier Wen Jiabao to "never budge even half an inch" in the showdown. Wen spoke after the Japanese government announced its decision Sept. 10 to purchase Uotsurishima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima for 2.05 billion yen ($25.95 million).

The Japanese government formally concluded the contract with the owner on Sept. 11.

The defense ministry is not the only Chinese state entity to assert China's claim to the territory.

The China Meteorological Administration said Sept. 11 that its Central Meteorological Office has begun issuing weather forecasts for the islands and adjacent waters. State-run China Central Television on Sept. 11 for the first time included the islands in temperature and weather forecasts for the following day.

The fallout from rapidly worsening bilateral ties is spilling over into various sectors.

A scheduled meeting between Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato and Li Jiaxiang, a senior Chinese transport ministry official, was canceled on the morning of Sept. 11.

Demonstrators took to streets in Beijing, as well as Guangzhou in Guangdong province and Weihai in Shandong province, among other cities, to denounce the Japanese government's move.

At a news conference on Sept. 11, Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, made clear that the government would not try, as it has in the past, to rein in the demonstrators unless they cross the line.

"Their feelings are perfectly understandable," he said.

The Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 11 urged Japanese expatriates and Japanese-affiliated companies to be extra vigilant in case of trouble.

Public and private events in China, in which Japanese are set to participate, look likely to be canceled one after another.

The chief of the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration announced in a news conference on Sept. 11 that Osaka will not be allowed to give a presentation as was initially planned at a tourism event to be held on Sept. 15.

Chinese reporters applauded when a spokesperson in the room added that although friendship at the grass-roots level is important, China will stand firm on the issue over territorial sovereignty.

On the same say, a media briefing on the Toray Cup Shanghai International Marathon, to be held in December, was canceled five minutes after it began.

An official involved in the event said the edict was issued by the city's vice mayor.

China's anger at the Japanese government's decision to purchase the islands follows repeated urgings by Beijing to let the matter rest.

"We were able to have a good communication (with Japan) via diplomatic channels," said an official in China's foreign ministry said. "Time and again, we fully conveyed our stance on this issue."

Chinese diplomats apparently believed they were better prepared to control events this time around, unlike in 2010 when things spun out of control after a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels in waters off the Senkaku Islands.

In addition to working-level efforts, President Hu Jintao called on Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to recognize the gravity of the Senkaku issue when they met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok on Sept. 9.

Some argue that Japan's purchase of the islands would be a more tolerable option for China than moves by Tokyo's nationalistic governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to buy the islands on behalf of his metropolitan government.

But an official at the Community Party of China's department handling China-Japan exchanges refuted that assertion.

"(The purchase by the Japanese government) is utterly unacceptable because on the home front, people will never be convinced of the logic behind it," the official said.

A ranking official with the Japanese study division at a Chinese government-affiliated think tank said Japan had misread the signals sent by Beijing.

"The Japanese government didn't get it right," the official said. "There is no longer much room left for the Chinese government to take a flexible response."

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura tried to play down the fallout over the purchase of the three islands.

"We have never used the term 'nationalization,'" he told a news conference on Sept. 11. "We simply obtained property we had been leasing."

The Japanese government had paid the owner 24.5 million yen a year since fiscal 2002.

In a meeting on Sept. 10, ministers involved in the Senkaku issue sought to show consideration to China by using the expression "to obtain and hold the Senkaku Islands."

"If the word 'nationalization' is translated into Chinese, it could ignite unnecessary uproar because it could be taken to mean that Japan is nationalizing Chinese territories," a high-ranking official said.

Fujimura said the Noda administration is hoping that this latest flare-up will not affect overall bilateral relations.

The Japanese government scrambled to dispatch Shinsuke Sugiyama, director-general at the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau, to Beijing on the morning of Sept. 11 to repair the damage.

Some government officials had urged Noda to delay the purchase of the islands in light of Hu's statement on the gravity of the issue.

Tuyoshi Yamaguchi, parliamentary senior vice foreign minister, strongly urged officials at the prime minister's office and Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba not to be in any rush to clinch the deal.

"We should delay making a decision for a while longer," Yamaguchi was quoted as saying. "We should not underestimate China's response."

But, as things turned out, the government turned a deaf ear to his proposal.

Japan, according to a senior government official, will find there is no turning back on the Senkaku issue now that the islands are formally under its control.

"China's protests are likely to continue, but we will continue to maintain that no territorial problems exist between Japan and China," the official said. "With the passage of time, we expect this issue to be resolved."

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Chinese protesters raise a banner which reads "Against Japan's Diaoyu Islands nationalization" as they march to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 11. (AP photo)

Chinese protesters raise a banner which reads "Against Japan's Diaoyu Islands nationalization" as they march to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 11. (AP photo)

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  • Chinese protesters raise a banner which reads "Against Japan's Diaoyu Islands nationalization" as they march to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 11. (AP photo)

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