Tokyo’s governor recently said that he was in negotiations with the owner of three islands that fall within rich fishing waters also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Shintaro Ishihara, the outspoken and nationalistic governor of Tokyo, is no stranger to controversy, and his latest announcement during a speech to the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, DC has raised a few eyebrows in the Asia-Pacific region. He is negotiating to purchase of a group of privately-owned islands in the East China Sea, he said, that are within waters that have been the subject of a hotly-contested territorial dispute between both Japan and China, and Japan and Taiwan.
“Tokyo has decided to buy the Senkaku islands. Tokyo will protect the Senkakus,” said Ishihara. “The Japanese are acquiring the islands to protect our own territory. Would anyone have a problem with that?”
Of course, several other parties do have a problem with Japan’s acquisition of three more of the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China and Taiwan, who trace their ownership back to the 16th century, and view Japan’s annexation of the islands in the late 19th century as an illegal act. The central government of Japan already owns one island in the group, Taisho Island, and Kuba Island is rented from its owner by the Ministry of Defense and is used for military drills. Japan considers the group as part of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture.
When it comes to the other three islands, there isn’t much to see; they have been completely deserted since 1940, when Koga Tatsushiro, a Japanese entrepreneur closed his failing fish-processing plant that had employed 200 people. His descendants still retain ownership of the islands, and Japan has had a long-term arrangement with the heirs to lease the islands for a reported US $304,000 per year so that they could not be sold or otherwise developed by private parties.
It may seem like a big storm over a group of barren, uninhabited islands, but the strategic importance of the Senkakus goes far beyond the islands themselves. Ownership will help establish Japan’s rights for commercial fishing in the bountiful area, and also buoy Japan’s claims to oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea. In Asia, where geological activity has led to a treasure trove of energy wealth underneath the sea floor, advantageous maritime boundaries can have a big economic impact for countries.
The long-standing territorial conflict between Japan and China over the East China Sea involves a number of islands that could be bought privately, and this may be one creative way to gain control of part of the territory, while operating outside of the realm of politics and diplomacy. China, however, has little patience for Japan’s new push for dominion. A Beijing spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded sternly; “Any unilateral measure taken by Japan is illegal and invalid, and will not change the fact that those islands belong to China.”
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