By Phred Dvorak and Toko Sekiguchi | Wall Street Journal
TOKYO, Japan, 28 August 2012
As Japan’s government is trying to smooth a quarrel with China over the sovereignty of a set of islands that lies between them, the man who ignited the current flare-up shows no sign of turning down the heat.
“We must build a telecommunications base, a port, a meteorological station” on the disputed islands, said Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and a well-known nationalist, whose controversial proposal to have the city buy the islands has ballooned into one of the summer’s hottest diplomatic brawls.
“Without such things, we won’t have effective control of them,” Tokyo’s popular four-term governor said in a recent interview.
Mr Ishihara’s plans are proving awkward for the Japanese government, which is struggling to ease tensions over those islands, which lie between Okinawa and Taiwan and are called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The islands are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China and Taiwan as well.
Although the islands’ sovereignty is the focus of periodic spats between Japan and China — most recently in 2010 — the issue had been off the radar until April, when Mr Ishihara said Tokyo was in talks to buy the islands from a private Japanese owner, and started raising donations for their purchase.
As of mid-August, Tokyo had collected around ¥1.5 billion ($19 million), Mr Ishihara said.
Mr Ishihara’s move prompted the Japanese government to step in and say it would buy the islands instead. China has said it won’t allow the land to be purchased by anybody.
Over the past few weeks, groups of activists from Hong Kong and Japan have made unauthorised landings on the islands to push competing claims, sparking harsh rhetoric from both sides and anti-Japanese demonstrations in China.
The Japanese government Monday moved to head off further steps by Mr Ishihara, rejecting the city of Tokyo’s request to land on the islands for a survey to determine their value. The city plans to go ahead and survey the islands anyhow from the sea, and Mr Ishihara on Friday said he himself would lead a second survey team to land there in October — with or without permission.
In the interview, Mr Ishihara said that his quest for a foothold on the disputed islands is driven by a fear of China, which is building up its maritime forces and has been increasingly assertive over territorial claims in the Pacific in recent years.
“Think of Tibet,” Mr Ishihara said. “They don’t have a country. They don’t have a leader. They’ve even lost their culture.…I don’t want Japan to end up as a second Tibet.”
To bolster Japan’s claims, Mr Ishihara is proposing that either Tokyo or the national government build facilities on the islands — now uninhabited — including a fishing port, a weather station and a base for radio transmissions.
“If worst comes to worst, we would probably station Japanese Self Defence Forces there,” he said, referring to Japan’s version of the military, whose activities are constitutionally limited to defence.
Mr Ishihara pooh-poohed the idea that relations with China will improve if the islands are left alone, pointing out that the Hong Kong activists that landed there a few weeks ago threw a brick at a Japanese coast-guard vessel that was trying to prevent them from approaching.
People say “if Ishihara buys [the islands], who knows what will happen. But if the country buys them, it won’t do anything, so there won’t be any friction with China,” said Mr Ishihara. “Well, there will be friction if things continue like this.”
Throughout the interview, in addition to referring to China by the standard Japanese term “Chugoku,” Mr Ishihara often used the word “Shina,” a derogatory term used during Japan’s occupation of much of China.
But Mr Ishihara took a much less aggressive tone on another set of islands, known as the Liancourt Rocks, whose sovereignty is now the subject of strained relations between Japan and South Korea.
Tensions started rising in early August, after South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited the Korea-controlled islands, called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.
The incident sparked a still-escalating diplomatic battle between Japan and South Korea, featuring aggressive rhetoric, canceled bilateral meetings and threats by Japan to take the matter to an international court.
Mr Ishihara said that the Korean control over the islands dated back to the period after Japan lost World War II and that it is tough to overturn that now. “Too much time has passed since then,” said Mr Ishihara. “It’s very unfortunate but it’s partly a done deal now.”