China tensions mount as Japan buys disputed islands

Thu, Sep 6, 2012, 01:00

JAPAN’S GOVERNMENT has upped the ante in a territorial row with China by agreeing to buy the islands at the centre of the dispute.

The islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, have been a thorn in the side of bilateral relations for decades.

News reports in Japan say the government of prime minister Yoshihiku Noda will pay about €21 million to the private owners of three of the five islands, effectively nationalising them. Cabinet ministers finalised the deal with the owners on Monday, according to the conservative Yomiuri newspaper, quoting government sources.

Beijing has previously said it will defend what it calls “sacred territory” and its initial response yesterday was angry and emotional. A foreign office spokesman said the move had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”.

“We cannot help but ask where is Japan trying to lead China-Japan relations to?” asked spokesman Hong Lei. Beijing has previously said it will “take necessary measures to defend its national territorial sovereignty,” but has not elaborated.

Tit-for-tat landings on the remote, uninhabited islands by flag-waving Japanese and Chinese nationalists last month triggered protest on both sides and violent demonstrations in some Chinese cities.

Last week, protesters in Beijing ripped a flag from the front of the Japanese ambassador’s car, sparking another diplomatic flurry.

The dispute has been kept on the diplomatic back burner since the 1970s, when China and Taiwan began to claim the islands from Japan. A 2010 collision in the area between a Chinese trawler and the Japanese coast guard upped tensions and prompted a movement by nationalists in Japan to solidify the country’s hold over the islands.

Mr Noda’s hand was forced after Tokyo’s right-wing governor Shintaro Ishihara began a public campaign by the city to buy the Senkakus, using private donations. Mr Ishihara has criticised the government for not doing enough to protect Japanese interests in the East China Sea, amid the growing Chinese maritime presence there.

Observers say Japan is likely to resist demands from nationalists to develop the islands to avoid further ratcheting up tensions with China. Mr Ishihara is demanding that the government build a permanent port for Japanese fishing vessels on the largest of the islands.