INSIDE LOOK: Japan tried but failed to avert disaster in China dispute

September 26, 2012


The central government underestimated China's likely reaction to its Sept. 11 decision to purchase three disputed islands in the East China Sea and saw relations plummet despite a careful reckoning of the possible consequences.

Japanese officials drew up several dozens of scenarios for China's response, based on how Beijing handled a fishing boat collision with Japan Coast Guard vessels off the Senkaku Islands in 2010. China bore international criticism for penalties it imposed then, and Japan's government banked on a weak response from its Asian rival this time.

In an in-depth investigation, The Asahi Shimbun spoke to some of the central players in the diplomatic disaster.

Among the revelations: that the government felt it would be easier to act before China's impending leadership shakeup, and later to repair ties when Beijing's new leaders took power; and that Japan's government drew up—but shelved—possible plans to build on the islands.

On May 18, Noda summoned high-ranking government officials to an unpublicized meeting at the prime minister's office. He told them to prepare to purchase the islands from the private citizen who, under Japanese law, was the legal owner.

"Defending territory is fundamentally a government duty," Noda told them. "My government will fulfill the task, with a sense of responsibility."

Noda had been under pressure to decide what to do since April 16, when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara declared, in a speech in Washington, that the Tokyo metropolitan government intended to buy the islands.

"Is there any problem with the Japanese people planning to defend Japanese national territory?" he asked, rhetorically.

High-ranking government officials who gathered in Noda's office on May 18 included Osamu Fujimura, chief Cabinet secretary; Hiroyuki Nagahama, deputy chief Cabinet secretary; Akihisa Nagashima, a special adviser to the prime minister; Kenichiro Sasae, vice foreign minister; and Chikao Kawai, assistant chief Cabinet secretary.

"It is more appropriate that the central government should buy the islands," Nagashima said, according to other people present. "We should announce that the purpose of doing so is to maintain and administer the islands in a peaceful and stable manner."

Sasae had earlier argued against the purchase: "We should leave it to the Tokyo metropolitan government, and tell China: 'The plan to buy the islands is merely what one local government is doing.'"

But Sasae did not oppose Nagashima's proposal.

So far, Noda had just been listening. Now he spoke up, and declared the central government should buy the islands.

Earlier, Noda had been more cautious.

When Ishihara visited the prime minister's office for talks on April 27, the Tokyo governor told Noda: "It should really be the central government that buys the islands." But Noda, at that meeting, was noncommittal.

Then, on April 29, when Noda and officials were aboard a flight to the United States for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Nagashima told him: "It is reasonable that the central government should buy the islands."

Noda replied: "Well…," and nothing more.

But donations were filling a public subscription fund the Tokyo metropolitan government had set up for its own purchase bid.

"When the amount approached 1 billion yen (about $12.5 million), we felt the metropolitan government's purchase plan was becoming a reality," said an aide to Noda.

If the Tokyo metropolitan government had actually bought the islands, the Noda administration could have been criticized for being weak-kneed.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government was fully alert to the actions of the Tokyo governor, who has long been an outspoken critic of China.

Behind the scenes, Beijing sent Tokyo a message warning that if Ishihara bought the islands, it would cause irrevocable damage to Japan-China relations.

The Japanese government calculated that China would be less incensed if the national government bought them instead, according to a high-ranking government official.

But China's government saw it differently. It had hoped the Japanese government would snuff out the Tokyo government's ambition, and do no more than that.

The difference in expectations between China and Japan gradually widened.

As if forced into it by Ishihara, Noda leaned toward putting the islands in state ownership, while China wanted to maintain the status quo and opposed the purchase outright.

Faced with the twin pressures of Beijing and the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Japanese government prepared to get its checkbook out.


However, Noda's greatest obstacle was Ishihara, who was determined to beat the central government in a race to clinch a deal first.

For about 30 years--ever since he had been a Lower House lawmaker--Ishihara had nurtured a dream of owning the islands. In March this year, Ishihara called the islands' owner, an acquaintance, and asked: "Can I announce that you are going to sell Senkaku Islands to the Tokyo metropolitan government?"

"If you can take responsibility for the announcement, please do so," the owner replied.

A month later, Ishihara revealed the purchase bid during his speech in Washington, and there was a sharp increase in public donations.

"The Tokyo metropolitan government was leading the central government 10-0," recalled an aide to Noda.

However, there would be a delay. The metropolitan government would be unable to give the owner a purchase price until autumn because necessary preparations included a real-estate appraisal and council work. The central government understood this, and dashed for the finish line.

Once Noda had given the purchase instruction at the May 18 meeting, Nagahama contacted the owner.

The owner responded favorably, and on July 7 Noda revealed the plan publicly for the first time.

"We will consider buying the Senkaku Islands from the viewpoint of administering them in a peaceful and stable manner," Noda told reporters that day.

The land ministry conducted a real estate appraisal, and in late July Fujimura told Noda that the purchase price would be about 2 billion yen.

"OK. At that price, go ahead," Noda said.

The government presented the owner with a pledge of "2 billion yen," a figure trumping that of the Tokyo metropolitan government's by several hundred million yen. The central government thus became the main bidder.

Ishihara asked the central government for a meeting with Noda. The government accepted his request.

The meeting was held unannounced, at the prime minister's office on Aug. 19.

In the meeting, Ishihara demanded that Noda build port facilities on the islands.

"I will cooperate with the central government's purchase plan," he said. "But I want the central government to construct infrastructure."

Noda replied: "Let me consider your request."

Meanwhile, the central government rejected a bid by the metropolitan government to land a survey team on the Senkakus.

On Sept. 3, the central government reached an agreement to buy the three islands for 2.05 billion yen. The next day, Nagashima, a special adviser to Noda, visited Ishihara's home, and told the governor the central government could not meet his request for a port on the Senkakus.

"All the Noda administration can do is to place the islands in state ownership," Nagashima said.

But the truth is, the central government had indeed examined constructing facilities such as a port and a lighthouse. It had drawn up eight plans, labeled A to H, depending on facilities required.

Some had argued structures would be necessary, not just to save Ishihara's face, but to strengthen overall administration of the islands. At one time, Noda had supported the idea.

However, the central government worried about possible Chinese opposition. Eventually, it shelved all construction plans and settled for becoming the islands' owner, not their developer.


China expressed strong opposition to Ishihara's purchase plan.

"It is a political show by a right-wing politician," said the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Even though donations had increased to the public-subscription fund, China believed the Japanese government would ultimately kill Ishihara's purchase bid, according to a high-ranking official of China's foreign ministry department overseeing Japan affairs.

Beijing held this view because it believed Japan and China had of late been maintaining sufficient dialogue to head off problems. They agreed to improve communications after relations took a hit in 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels off the Senkakus.

But differences between the two sides rapidly became apparent.

On May 13, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met Noda for talks in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where he asserted that the Senkaku Islands were Chinese territory.

Noda responded, saying: "China's increasing maritime activity, including in areas near the Senkakus, offends the feelings of the Japanese people."

On June 11, Japan and China convened a meeting at the vice-ministerial level in a hotel near Lake Yamanakako in Yamanashi Prefecture.

"Japan should firmly block measures that damage the two countries' political foundations," demanded Zhang Zhijun, China's vice foreign minister.

But Sasae, the Japanese vice foreign minister, hinted at the islands' possible purchase.

"It is important to maintain and administer the Senkaku Islands in a peaceful and stable manner," he said.

On July 7, Noda announced that the Japanese government would consider nationalizing the islands.

As far as China was concerned, not only was this an escalation, the timing seemed singularly inappropriate.

It was the 75th anniversary of the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident in Beijing, which led ultimately to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

The timing hardened China's stance.

"Is the Japanese government really going to play the main character in a farce by Ishihara? He is pressuring the Japanese government, with the ultimate aim of the islands' nationalization," commented Xinhua.

Four days later, three fishery surveillance ships entered Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. On Aug. 15, activists from Hong Kong managed to land on one. Anti-Japan demonstrations spread throughout China in late August.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government had tried to calculate China's possible reaction.

It drew up several dozen scenarios, covering areas from politics and economics to private-sector exchanges and military affairs.

The scenarios were largely based on the aftermath of the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japan Coast Guard vessels. Japanese authorities arrested the boat's captain and sent him to prosecutors.

China struck back. It restricted exports of rare earth metals to Japan, and temporarily detained employees of one Japanese company.

The international community weighed in, condemning China. So the Japanese prime minister’s office calculated that this time China would stop short of such retaliation.

Japan's Foreign Ministry was less sure. It had noted the growth of anti-Japan movements in China, and some of its officials urged caution.

"It may be better for the central government to let the Tokyo metropolitan government buy the islands, and keep the Japanese state out of the equation," said one Foreign Ministry official at a meeting of government officials in Noda’s office in late August.

Noda dismissed the suggestion.

"As we have said, the central government should buy them," he replied.


Japan's government decided it would proceed during a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 11. It aimed to make the decision before the expected party congress this autumn of China's Communist Party, which will hand power from President Hu Jintao to a new leadership headed by Xi Jinping.

"If we finalize the Senkaku issue during Hu Jintao’s era, we can then repair relations after the new leadership is established," said one of Noda's aides. "The worst timing would be to purchase the islands after the new leadership takes power."

Because China's new leadership would still have weak foundations, officials figured it would be more tempted to lash out at an easy foreign target like Japan.

Moreover, Japan's government was in a hurry to buy the islands because it feared the owner might walk away and knock once more on Ishihara's door, said a high-ranking government official.

In late August, Parliamentary Senior Vice Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi visited China and delivered Noda’s letter to Dai Bingguo, a state councilor, a rank roughly equivalent to vice premier.

"It is extremely important to maintain close communications at the highest political levels," the letter read.

Initially, China welcomed that. "This move shows the Noda administration’s eagerness for dialogue," wrote The Global Times, a newspaper focusing on international relations.

But a foreign ministry official then expressed disappointment.

"The letter merely explained Japan’s basic stance," the official said. "It offered no initiatives to improve the situation."

On Sept. 9, two days before the Japanese government’s final decision, Noda and Hu stood in conversation on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, Russia. It was an informal meeting, not an official one.

Noda began by expressing heartfelt sympathy for the victims of an earthquake that had struck China's Yunnan province on Sept. 7.

Hu's response: "It is illegal to nationalize the Senkaku Islands."

"I want to deal with it from a broad perspective," Noda replied.

Hu told Noda: "Japan must fully recognize the seriousness of the situation. It should not make an error."

But on Sept. 11, as scheduled, Noda's Cabinet formalized the purchase.

A Chinese foreign ministry official reacted with apparent anger.

"The Noda administration did not understand the weight of the words we asked our president to express," the official said. "At the very least, it should have been able to delay the decision."

In China, anti-Japan protests intensified. Demonstrators attacked Japanese factories and retail outlets.

Noda turned angrily to his aides. "Is the Chinese government going to tacitly approve 'yakiuchi'?" he said, using a Japanese word for military-style arson used in battle.

Today, the prime minister’s office has the ongoing problem of how to handle Chinese patrol ships in waters off the Senkaku Islands. About half of Japan's coast guard cutters have been dispatched there, and are tied up in monitoring the flotilla.

"For the time being, coast guard crews are just going to be kept exhausted," admitted a high-ranking government official.

However, Noda has instructed Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto not to dispatch Self-Defense Force ships. "Just keep monitoring it, in the conventional way," he said.

Japan seems aware of the risk of escalation.

In talks with Luo Zhaohui, his Beijing counterpart, Shinsuke Sugiyama, head of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry said: "Japan and China will be in a serious situation if they cross the red line."

That red line means a situation that may require the use of force.

"This situation will last for a fairly long period," said one Japanese government official involved in the purchase decision. "Neither Japan nor China can change its stance. We must prepare ourselves for that."

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From right, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Chinese President Hu Juntao (Asahi Shimbun file photos)

From right, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Chinese President Hu Juntao (Asahi Shimbun file photos)

  • From right, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Chinese President Hu Juntao (Asahi Shimbun file photos)
  • From foreground, Minami-Kojima, Kita-Kojima and Uotsurishima, of the Senkaku Islands (The Asahi Shimbun)

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