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Some of Senkaku Islands may be purchased from private owner

Date Posted: 2012-04-20

With a declaration that Japanís central government is not doing its job in protecting the Senkaku Islands, the governor of Tokyo is finalizing a deal with the islandsí private owner to purchase them as a safeguard against Chinese intervention.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is entering a final phase of negotiations for three of the islands in southern Okinawa Prefecture, using its city budget. The metropolitan government has already reached a basic agreement on the purchase, he said during a speech in Washingon, and hopes to have a formal deal by the end of this year by obtaining approval from the metropolitan assembly. The Senkaku islands, which belong to Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture, are also claimed by China, where they are called Diaoyu.

Islands under negotiation are Uotsuri, Kitakojima and Minamikojima, according to the metropolitan government. Uotsuri is the largest among the five Senkaku islets.

Critics say Ishihara's move will certainly draw a strong backlash from China and may ignite a new bilateral dispute in the year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic normalization between the two countries. At the speech, Ishihara said he decided to acquire the islands in the wake of China starting a "radical campaign" to end Japan's effective control over the islands in the East China Sea.

For sure, Ishiharaís moves have gotten the central governmentís attention. Now, the Japanese government itself may consider the possibility of buying and nationalizing the Senkaku chain of islands, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura has suggested.

At a press conference, Fujimura said that if necessary, the central government may move things forward based on the idea unveiled by Ishihara. The central government currently rents four privately owned Senkaku islands for the purpose of peacefully and stably maintaining and managing them.

In the national budget for fiscal 2012 that began this month, the central government allocated some 21.1 million yen for Uotsurijima, 1.5 million yen for Kitakojima and 1.88 million yen for Minamikojima as annual rental fees. Rental fees for Kubajima have not been disclosed based on its owner's request. The Tokyo metropolitan government plans to buy Uotsurijima, Kitakojima and Minamikojima.

Ishihara's comments immediately drew strong opposition from China, which also claims its sovereignty over the Senkaku chain, known as Diaoyu in China. Japan's unilateral action on Diaoyu island is illegal and invalid, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin has fired back, making a series of remarks after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said his metropolitan government is in talks to buy Diaoyu and neighboring islets, known as the Senkaku chain in Japan. Liu said the East China Sea islands are inherent part of Chinese territory and that China has indisputable sovereignty over them. He maintains any Japanese unilateral action will not change the fact that the islands belong to China.

Tokyo is undeterred. Because Japan's state government should buy the islands but would not do so, "Tokyo will protect the Senkakus," Ishihara says, noting that the Senkaku area is rich in fishing resources and has a big potential for natural energy development. The Tokyo government will implement a variety of measures on those islands for the future of Japan as a maritime nation. Meeting the press after the speech, Ishihara also said he is considering joint ownership of the islands among Tokyo, Okinawa and Ishigaki.

According to the Tokyo chief, the negotiations with the owner of the three Senkaku islands began
late last year and the two sides are now discussing details of a final deal to strike. At present, the central government owns the islet of Taisho while Kuba is held by a different person, according to the Foreign Ministry. Ishihara said he does not see any problem using funds secured under the Tokyo government budget as long as the use of the money works for the good of Japan.

The Senkaku islands have been at the center of territorial rows between Japan and China. A collision accident between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard vessels near the islands in 2010 sparked a diplomatic spat.

Beijing took a countermeasure after the Japanese government announced names of 39 uninhabited islets including those in the Senkaku chain in early March. Also last month, China had a most-advanced surveillance ship of its State Oceanic Administration intrude temporarily into Japanese waters near the islands, "in a move to demonstrate its sovereignty," according to a government official. Pundits warn that chances are high that the Ishihara remarks will prompt the oceanic administration and the Chinese navy to step up their operations around the Senkakus.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government appears to be hoping to prevent Ishihara's remark from negatively affecting the two countries' cooperation and exchange programs.

Wednesday's exchange event in Tokyo between heads of Chinese provinces and governors of Japanese prefectures is expected to take place as scheduled. Beijing is seeking an improvement in the feelings of Chinese and Japanese people toward each other as this year marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of the two countries' diplomatic relations.

China is also hoping to see stability in the political situations both at home and abroad ahead of an autumn convention of the Communist Party of China. Sino-Japanese relations soured substantially after high-profile collisions between a Chinese trawler and Japanese patrol ships near the disputed islands in September 2010. A recent remark by Takashi Kawamura, mayor of the central Japan city of Nagoya, denying the 1937 massacre in Nanjing by the defunct Imperial Japanese Army drew harsh reaction in China.

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