Tokyo Governor at Heart of Diaoyu Standoff

Mark MacKinnon profiles Shintaro Ishihara, the impulsive governor of Tokyo who has irked the Chinese government by declaring Tokyo’s plans to purchase the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japanese) in the East China Sea. From Foreign Policy:

But for the first time, one of Ishihara’s provocations may come with real consequences. In April, Ishihara announced that he planned to purchase the Senkaku Islands, five uninhabited rocks southwest of Okinawa and east of Taiwan, four of which have been privately owned by a Japanese family for the past four decades, but which both China and Taiwan also claim. China is embroiled in tense territorial disputes in other spots as well — in late July it sent soldiers to an island in the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. But it’s the Senkakus (known in China as the Diaoyus) where a wider war could break out. A group of activists from Hong Kong is planning to visit the islands to protest Japan’s claims and could arrive as early as Aug. 16. On Aug. 14, the English-language version of the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper published by the official People’s Daily, warned that if Japan sends military forces to block Chinese activists “it will force China to send warships to the Diaoyu Islands’ waters.”

More acrimony exists between Japan and China than between China and any other country. Fierce anti-Japanese sentiment — stemming from the sense Japan has never fully atoned for World War II atrocities — is disturbingly common both in China’s official media and online among ordinary netizens. Meanwhile, Japanese government polling conducted last year found that more than three-quarters of Japanese — the highest level since 1978 — consider relations with their giant neighbor to be “unfriendly.” That’s troubling for the United States, which under the terms of a mutual security treaty, has an obligation to defend Japan. (In July, Japan’s Kyodo news agency quoted an unnamed U.S. State Department official saying the scope of the treaty includes the Senkaku Islands.)

The Japanese central government has attempted to reel in Ishihara’s influence over the issue by promising to purchase the islands from Tokyo, but nevertheless has been eager to project a sense of unity in the confrontation with China. On Tuesday, the Japan Times reported that Japan would likely replace its ambassador to China after he publicly opposed Ishihara’s plan during a June interview with The Financial Times.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reported that the group of activists from Hong Kong were set to make their final approach to the Diaoyu Islands on Tuesday:

Chan Miu-tak of the Hong Kong Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands said that before making the last part of its journey to the Senkaku islands, his 14-member group were hoping to make a brief stop at the port of Keelung in Taiwan on Tuesday to buy food. The rocky isles are known as the Senkaku in Japan, the Diaoyu in China, and the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.

The group consists of activists from Macau and Hong Kong, journalists from Hong Kong-based TV company Phoenix, as well as the ship’s crew, Mr. Chan said. An earlier attempt in the day to land at Taichung in Taiwan was blocked by the local coast guard, he added.

Three groups from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China had initially planned to undertake the voyage together, but the Taiwanese and Chinese groups have apparently withdrawn, leaving the Hong Kong activists on their own.

In the editorial referenced above by MacKinnon, The Global Times expressed its opposition to any attempt by Japan to stop the activists from landing on the Diaoyu Islands:

If Japan does so out of a whim, it will force China to send warships to the Diaoyu Islands’ waters. A confrontation will arise between the countries’ activists, which may later escalate into one between warships, boding ill for East Asian security.