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Japan Plan to Buy Islands Draws China’s Condemnation

U.S. Says Disputed Islands Covered by Defense Treaty
An aerial picture from a P3C of Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces shows the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and as Senkaku in Japanese, in the East China Sea. Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

A Japanese government plan to buy uninhabited islands owned by a private investor provoked condemnation from China, which also claims it owns the rocky outcroppings, the latest flare-up in a dispute over territory and resources in the East China Sea.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on July 7 said the government is considering a purchase of the islands, Kyodo News reported. China’s Foreign Ministry responded with a statement that the islets belong to China and “can’t be bought or sold.”

The dispute over who controls the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, escalated in April after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he wanted to use public money to buy them. Sovereignty over the area, which has undersea natural gas and oil fields, has been a flash point between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.

“Clearly the reason why the Senkaku Islands are a big bone of contention is the potential for resources,” said Jeff Kingston, head of the Asian Studies program at Temple University in Tokyo. “Governor Ishihara has caused a headache for the government and what they’re trying to do is engage in damage control by getting the islands out of the grips of Ishihara, who’s trying to politicize this for his own gain.”

Taiwan also claims the isles, which are about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of its capital, Taipei; 100 miles northwest of the southernmost island in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture; and 400 miles southeast of Shanghai. A Taiwan government spokesperson on July 7 said the plan to buy the islands is unacceptable, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Taiwan, Vietnam

Japan and China are engaged in territorial disputes with other countries as well. China is squabbling with the Philippines and Vietnam over islands in the South China Sea, while Japan and South Korea each claim ownership of rocky islets that nearly provoked a 2006 naval clash.

Vietnam’s parliament last month passed a maritime law reasserted sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands and as many as 200 protesters marched in Hanoi yesterday, calling for China to leave the area. The Philippines on July 5 filed a protest against China’s establishment of a city called Sansha covering several disputed island groups and atolls.

China and members of the Association of South Asian Nations should continue negotiations over territorial claims in the South China Sea, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Tokyo. Clinton didn’t comment on the dispute between China and Japan.

A 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and Japanese Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku Islands frayed ties for months. The two countries have yet to implement a 2008 agreement to jointly develop the area’s undersea natural gas and oil resources.

“There are many in the government who think that Ishihara is playing a dangerous game politicizing the Senkaku Islands and jeopardizing a rapprochement that has been going on,” Temple University’s Kingston said. “Now the government is in this embarrassing position of doing this thing they don’t want to do, knowing that it’s stoking regional tensions.”

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