Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda confirmed the central government plans to buy the Senkaku Islands, fearing ownership of the disputed isles involving Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara could cause irreparable damage to relations with China.
"We will have to find out what the Tokyo metropolitan government's plan is," Noda told reporters on July 7. "We are conducting discussions on several levels because the owner also has various things to consider."
Ishihara has shown no signs of ending the Tokyo metropolitan government’s plan to buy the three uninhabited islands--Uotsurijima, Minami-Kojima and Kita-Kojima—in the East China Sea from the landowner who lives in Saitama Prefecture.
Although Ishihara did say it would be desirable for the Tokyo metropolitan government to first acquire the islands and then resell them to the central government, he didn’t waste the opportunity to poke fun at the Noda administration.
"They are only doing it to gain popularity," Ishihara told reporters on July 7. "They are making these comments now because the administration is struggling. I have been told through an intermediary that the owner said 'not to worry because I have no intention of selling it to the central government.'"
Government officials, including Noda, have long insisted that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory from the standpoint of international law and history, even going so far as to deny the existence of a territorial dispute with China.
However, Japan has taken little specific action in developing or exerting sovereignty over the islands, mainly due to concerns about damaging relations with China, which calls the islands Diaoyutai.
Ishihara upset the apple cart by announcing in an April speech in Washington that the Tokyo metropolitan government would buy the three islands in order "to protect the Senkaku Islands."
"Is there a problem with the Japanese protecting Japanese territory?" the governor asked, referring to the increase in China’s maritime activities.
His announcement sparked angry comments from Beijing and Taiwan, which both started making territorial claims on the Senkakus after large reserves of petroleum and natural gas were detected near the islands.
Japanese central government officials also expressed concerns about Ishihara’s announcement, but some dismissed the plan as a publicity stunt.
Although the governor said that acquiring the islands was a task that should be handled by the central government, he aggressively pursued ownership of the islands for the Tokyo metropolitan government.
Having obtained the consent of the landowner, the metropolitan government was preparing to buy the islands next April. It also set up a special bank account that collected 1.3 billion yen ($16.3 million) in donations from around Japan for the purchase.
"We want to buy the (islands) as soon as possible," Ishihara said at a July 6 news conference. "The central government will be able to indirectly protect the Senkakus. It has said it was prepared to cooperate to the fullest."
A Japanese central government purchase of the islands would undoubtedly lead to diplomatic fallout with its neighbors. But central government officials feel the diplomatic situation would spin further out of control with Ishihara at the center, considering his habit of infuriating Beijing with his remarks about the history between the two countries and even the name of a panda recently born in Tokyo.
"If Ishihara, who has repeatedly made provocative comments, goes ahead with the purchase, relations between Japan and China will further worsen," a central government source said.
The central government is paying 24.5 million yen in annual rent for the three islands to the owner. If the Tokyo metropolitan government acquired the islands, a renewal of that rental agreement would be difficult.
Some senior politicians in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan had already been calling for the central government to buy the three islands.
"It is illogical to have another local government purchase land under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefecture,” Seiji Maehara, the DPJ policy chief, said in April. “The central government should buy the islands."
The main opposition Liberal Democratic Party has also included national ownership of the Senkaku Islands as a plank in its party platform for the next Lower House election.
Ishihara apparently forced Noda’s hand by floating ideas for the territory once it was owned by the metropolitan government.
"The waters around the Senkaku Islands are a rich fishing ground, and the islands also hold enormous potential for the development of natural energy sources," Ishihara said.
An associate of Noda said, "If confrontation between Japan and China intensified after nationalization of the islands, it would have a negative effect on the economy. But that does not mean we can afford to sit back and do nothing."
Some sources said Noda himself played a key role in the government’s decision to buy the islands.
Although Noda may not be as right-wing as Ishihara, the prime minister does have a nationalistic streak. He has repeatedly said the Senkaku Islands were Japanese territory and argued that there was no basis to the Chinese claims.
In a May meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Noda used unusually strong language, saying, "The intensification of maritime activities, including around the Senkakus, by China has stirred the emotions of the Japanese public."
Japan’s relations with China worsened after a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku Islands in September 2010, leading to the arrest of the trawler captain.
The DPJ-led government was harshly criticized for its handling of the incident, but relations have since improved. The government does not want another incident that could unravel the ties again.
"If Ishihara purchased the islands, the situation could become much more serious if he did something provocative,” a high-ranking central government official said. “We would be better able to manage the situation with China if the central government purchased the islands."
The central government’s island-buying plan could also help to generate public support for the Noda Cabinet, which has seen its support ratings plummet amid recent unpopular policies, such as doubling the consumption tax rate by 2015 and resuming operations at the Oi nuclear power plant.
Ishihara may also use the island purchase as a political tool to generate public support as he seeks to return to the national political stage.
Although Ishihara has called on the central government to take a stronger stand on the islands, some officials have raised doubts about the governor’s true motives.
"With Ishihara seeking to start up a new political party, he may not simply hand over the islands to the central government due to political considerations," one source said.
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