As the diplomatic imbroglio between China and the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea continues, Beijing is facing another territorial clash over another set of islands, this time with Japan. The group of islands, located in the East China Sea, are held by a private Japanese owner. The Japanese government has rented them since 2002, but in a move that is sure to provoke an angry response from China, the governor of Tokyo has announced plans to buy the islands.According to the Financial Times, the governor, Shintaro Ishihara, challenged the longstanding rental agreement while visiting the U.S. yesterday:
Mr Ishihara, a conservative who has long been fiercely critical of China, suggested leaving the islands in private ownership could weaken Japan’s claim to them, waving aside worries that attempting to develop them would be diplomatically unwise.“The purchase of these islands will be Japanese buying Japanese land in order to protect it. What would other countries have to complain about?” Mr Ishihara said.
The two countries cannot even agree on what to call the islands; in China they are referred to as Diaoyus but in Japan they are known as Senkaku. And the dispute goes far beyond the appropriate appellation; the FT also points out that: “A clash between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coastguard in the area in 2010 sparked the worst tension between Beijing and Tokyo in years, all but halting official contact and disrupting economic exchanges for months.”The owner of the islands has yet to decide whether he will in fact sell them. Even if he does there are considerable legal and political roadblocks which must be cleared, including the ability of Japan’s central government to block the sale. Ultimately, however, whether the sale goes ahead or not, this dispute—like that between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea—illustrates Beijing’s geopolitical limitations.Wariness of China is prevalent throughout Asia, and while this presents the U.S. with opportunities (witness the Obama administration’s recent “pivot” to the region), Washington must also be aware of the pitfalls of becoming too deeply entangled in neighborly disputes.The temperature in Asia seems to be rising.