Japan is contemplating a move in the Great Game that might make the recent Scarborough Shoal quarrel between China and the Philippines look like a sideshow. Nationalist rumblings in China and Japan have set off a contest over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—a resource-rich string of rocks under Japanese administration. The central government of Japan may soon buy up the territory, which it currently rents from its owner, a private citizen.The Japanese government’s move in this case is less provocative than it may at first seem. The government was pushed to consider the purchase by the ultranationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who in April warned of China’s ambitions for the territory and declared that his city would purchase the islands to preserve and develop them for the Japanese. Since then, the central government has had to think carefully about how to preserve its fragile relations with Beijing, prevent the rocks from becoming the property of one excitable govorner, and retain sovereignty over the Senkaku.The crisis may come notwithstanding Japan’s efforts. Beijing has responded to the purchase plan with fighting words:
Beijing and Taipei quickly objected, with China’s foreign ministry saying the country would continue to take necessary measures to “resolutely defend” sovereignty over the islands, a collection of rocky outcrops in the East China Sea.“Nobody is allowed to trade in China’s sacred territory,” the ministry said in a statement posted on its website on Saturday.
Harsh official statements notwithstanding, it is likely that cooler heads in Beijing understand that Japan’s plans to purchase the islands in this case are meant to reduce tensions. The trouble is that Beijing has its own share of hotheads: One Chinese general wrote that China should conduct war games in the area and make one island a firing range for the air force.