Japan demanded an investigation after assailants in Beijing blocked an official car carrying its envoy to China and snatched a Japanese flag, amid escalating tension over islands claimed by both nations.
Two vehicles stopped Ambassador Uichiro Niwa’s car around 4 p.m. yesterday and a man jumped out and took the flag, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters today in Tokyo. The government lodged a protest, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is sending a letter to Chinese authorities, he said.
“China has told us this was an extremely regrettable incident,” Fujimura said. “The authorities said they will make every effort to prevent a re-occurrence of such an incident, and guarantee the safety of Japanese citizens and businesses.”
The attack came days after protests erupted in China during tit-for-tat visits to the islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, by activists from both sides. The dispute soured ties at a time when Japan is embroiled in a similar row with South Korea, while China is mired in spats with Vietnam and the Philippines involving offshore oil rights.
“The current tensions are much more a symptom of China’s troubled relations with Japan than with China’s overall approach to territorial disputes,” said Taylor Fravel, a political science professor specializing in China at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The dispute over the Senkakus now features more prominently in ties between the two sides than a decade ago.”
The islands in the East China Sea have been a flash point between the world’s second and third-largest economies, underlined by a 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and Japanese Coast Guard ships that damaged ties for months. Sovereignty over the area gives the holder control of undersea natural gas and oil fields and the two countries signed a joint development agreement in 2008 that has yet to be implemented.
China yesterday offered offshore oil and gas blocks for joint development with foreign companies, including some near the Paracel Islands that are jointly claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Tensions have risen after China decided to establish a city and military garrison on one of the isles.
Noda last week said Japan will increase security around its outlying islands given its maritime territorial disputes. His administration yesterday denied an application by the Tokyo metropolitan government to land on the Senkakus.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s announcement in April that he would try to buy the islands from a private Japanese owner set off the latest episode in the dispute. The Japanese-controlled chain is about 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Japan’s Ishigaki island, which is located between Taiwan and Okinawa.
Ambassador Niwa criticized Ishihara’s plan in an interview with the Financial Times in June, saying it could cause “an extremely grave crisis.” Fujimura said at the time that Niwa had been cautioned for his comments.
Fujimura yesterday declined to comment on a Kyodo News report that Noda’s government had made a 2 billion yen ($25.4 million) offer to the family that owns four of the five islands and intended to nationalize them as soon as next month.
“The sale might create an opportunity for China and Japan to reach a consensus on managing the dispute, as the islands would now be under the control of the central government and perhaps some understanding could be achieved,” M.I.T.’s Fravel said.
Chinese police two days ago broke up an anti-Japanese protest of 500 people in the city of Dongguan in Guangdong province, the South China Morning Post reported yesterday.
— With assistance by Daryl Loo, and Takashi Hirokawa