Japan-China Territorial Tensions Should Ease with Island Deal

In Tokyo today, it was announced that the national government, led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, will purchase the Senkaku Islands from the current private Japanese owner. The Senkakus, which are around 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, have been under Japan’s control since 1972. But China also claims the islands (which it calls Diaoyu) as its territory, and there have been periodic clashes over the islands. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman strongly protested Noda’s step, saying that it had “infringed on China’s sovereignty and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” and that Beijing would “take the necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty.”

Admittedly, the Chinese government is in a tough political spot because the nationalistic part of the public gets hurt feelings over anything that Japan does, and then demands that Beijing act to protect the country’s interest. The government does not wish to appear weak, because anti-Japanese anger can quickly become anti-regime protest.

Yet China and nationalistic Chinese should clearly understand Prime Minister Noda’s intent. Instead of reading his decision as one more sign of a rightward shift in Japan’s China policy, it will prevent the Diaoyu/Senkaku situation from getting much, much worse.

Why is that? This episode began with an announcement earlier this year by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a real right-wing nationalist, that Tokyo was going to buy the islands from the private owner. It may be recalled that in the 1990s, Ishihara published a polemical book called The Japan that Can Say “No.” Ishihara’s target then was the United States, but he would certainly apply his sentiment to China today.

If Governor Ishihara were to gain ownership over the Senkaku/Diaoyu, the tensions with China would seriously escalate. He would be able to facilitate activities on the islands by nationalistic Japanese groups (planting flags, erecting lighthouses) as his way of saying “no” to China. There would be little that the Japanese government could do to stop him. But private groups in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (which also claims the islands) would likely respond by saying “hell, no,” and seek themselves to carry out landings on the islands. Some Chinese maritime agencies would possibly step up their efforts to test Japan’s control of the islands, something they have done in the past.

By preempting Governor Ishihara on the ownership issue, Prime Minister Noda is ensuring a monopoly of national government control over what happens on the islands. The national government can prevent the very kind of activities that Ishihara would likely have promoted. The chances for rolling tensions between China and Japan thus declines.

China, of course, will complain that the new ownership arrangement depletes its own claim that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are its territory. That complaint lacks merit. To draw an analogy, the land on Massachusetts Avenue on which the buildings of the Brookings Institution sit is part of the territory of the United States, regardless of whether the land is owned by Brookings, the District of Columbia, or the national government. China-Japan relations would have been better without Governor Ishihara’s ploy, but which Japanese entity owns the islands in no way affects Beijing’s claim that they are Chinese sovereign territory. Prime Minister Noda’s action defuses a difficult situation. To be sure, the Japanese national government must exercise their monopoly of control going forward. Chinese leaders should counsel their nationalistic citizens that Prime Minister Noda has actually helped China’s interests, not hurt them.