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IDSA COMMENT

Japan’s “Nationalisation” of Senkaku: Internal and External Determinants

September 25, 2012

Japan’s “nationalisation” of three Senkaku Islands (see Figure 1)—over which China and Taiwan also have contested claims—will not change the status quo of the territory. The purchase of these islands by the Japanese government from private owners is merely a change in ownership. Considering the sensitivities expressed by Beijing regarding the territory on previous occasions, Japan has decided to maintain the status quo of these uninhabited islands. The Chinese government and the people have, however, found a reason to react strongly to this development by Japan.

Figure 1: The Disputed Islands

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun online edition, available at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120906004354.htm.

The Chinese government has termed Japan’s purchase of the islands a “gross violation” of Chinese sovereignty over the territory, and has warned that it will take “necessary measures” to safeguard its interest—a statement it has issued on previous occasions with regard to the dispute. The Chinese Defense Ministry has, however, issued a rather harsh statement saying that the “Chinese government and armed forces stand firm…in their determination to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and territory.”1 The Japanese media has reported that as of June 18, China dispatched 11 ships to the East China Sea in response to Japan’s “nationalisation” of the three islands. The Japanese media has taken this stance as a hint of possible military action by the PLA Navy, which has reinforced Japan’s concern about the PLA’s growing “influence” on Beijing’s “foreign policy decisions” including issues concerning “national sovereignty”2 —a point that was emphasized in Japan’s recently published Defense White Paper.

In a bid to exert pressure on the Japanese government to nullify the land purchase agreement, China has allowed its citizens to vent their anger against Japan, and anti-Japanese rallies have spread to more than 100 Chinese cities. Chinese activists have ransacked various stores and factories owned by Japanese companies. Japanese citizens have also been attacked in China, something which was not witnessed during previous anti-Japanese protests. Thus the Japanese government has been facing pressure from three sides—the Chinese government, the military and citizens—to retract its move on the Senkakus.

It is being argued by China that Japan, in the near future, would deploy troops on these islands closer to China’s maritime boundary to counter the former’s military assertions. Some in China also see it as a move by Japan to “draw Washington into a conflict between Beijing and Tokyo.”3 However, the overall political mood in Japan does not suggest that it is gearing up to test China’s military strength. The nationalisation of these islands has been driven more by domestic political factors than external factors. The nationalization debate was raked up by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who announced in April 2012 that the Tokyo metropolitan government is in negotiations with the Saitama-based businessman who owns these islands in order to “protect” these from China.4 Soon other political parties joined the fray, including the main opposition party—the Liberal Democratic Party—which announced that it would nationalise the Senkaku islands if it were voted back to power. A section in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan also wanted to take political mileage out of it. Amid this internal debate, Hong Kong-based Chinese activists landed on one of the disputed islands, defying the Japanese government’s prohibitory order and asserted Chinese sovereignty. Their brief detention led to a diplomatic diatribe between Tokyo and Beijing. In response, a group of Japanese nationalists also landed on the islands asserting Japanese sovereignty. These developments prompted Japan’s central government to expedite the negotiation process with the private businessman to buy the land. The government offered some ¥ 2.05 billion (about $ 25.95 million) to the owner and clinched the deal.

Ishihara has achieved his goal, though only partially. He started negotiations with the private land owner with two goals: nationalising the territory and ending the prohibitory order imposed by the central government for landing on the territory. Ishihara is seen as a prime mover in Japan for the nationalization of the disputed territory. But he has failed to change the status quo of the territory (he had planned to develop a park and jetty for Japanese fishermen after purchasing it).

Realising the sensitivity of this issue and apprehending a strong reaction from Beijing after the land purchase, Japanese leaders have been careful to describe the development as nationalisation. Instead, they have stated that Japan has put the territory under state ownership in order to secure its “peaceful and stable management”. The Noda cabinet has not taken the calls from Japanese nationalists seriously to use the Senkakus to deploy the defense forces to strengthen its sovereignty claim. The Japanese media reports suggest that prior to the land purchase, the Noda cabinet discussed various soft and tough plans, including keeping the islets as they are, repairing the light house, constructing a shelter for fishing boats, and the toughest option of deploying troops. But the cabinet later arrived at a decision not to “provoke China further over the issue” and decided to maintain the status quo. This suggests that, as of now, Japan has no intention to station troops closer to China and will continue with its plan to keep a vigil on Chinese maritime activities from a distance. On September 7, a few days before the land purchase of the contested territory, the Japanese Defense Ministry stated that “it is not feasible to deploy troops to each island”5 since there are many islands in Japan’s south-west. Owing to budget constraints6 Japan’s options are limited. Further, a bold initiative to deploy troops on the contested islands will result only in a military confrontation—an eventuality that Japan does not look forward to, especially in the wake of Leon Panetta’s message that the United States takes no side on this territorial dispute.

The “nationalisation” of the Senkakus has adversely impacted the diplomatic relations between Japan and China, and between Japan and Taiwan. This is mainly because the Noda cabinet miscalculated the timing of the land purchase. The decision to sign the land purchase contract came a week before September 18, which is akin to a calendar event in China for anti-Japan protests: It was on September 18, 1931 that Japan occupied north-eastern China. The Senkaku land purchase acted a catalyst, adding fuel to fire.

Amid rising nationalism in both countries, the Japanese government continues with its stance that there is no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands with any country. However, a section of the Japanese, though in a minority, has been demanding the government to “reconsider” this stance and refer the issue to the International Court of Justice for mediation. There are voices within Japan which call for a revival of the idea of jointly sharing the resources around Senkakus, which both countries have agreed in principle in 2006, but postponed the signing of a treaty following the Senkaku incident of September 2010.7 Since the present Chinese leadership is in transition and a snap poll seems likely in Japan, a firm political response from both sides is doubtful. This suggests that the current situation may linger for some time.