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Plan to buy Senkaku Islands hatched months ago in secret

Publication Date : 19-04-2012

 

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara spent six months on secret negotiations with a man owning three islets of the Senkaku Islands before making a surprise announcement Monday during a visit to Washington that his government plans to purchase them.

With the envisaged purchase, Ishihara apparently aims to check China's efforts to expand its influence to the waters around the islands as well as to challenge a Democratic Party of Japan-led government that he sees as wishy-washy about border issues, observers said.

During his speech in the US capital, Ishihara severely criticised the DPJ-led government's stance on territorial issues involving islands.

Ishihara believes the government has been indecisive regarding the dispute over the five-islet chain about 410 kilometres west of Okinawa Island, the main island in Okinawa Prefecture.

Although the government says the Senkaku Islands are "Japan's sovereign territory, about which there is no doubt in terms of history and international law", China and Taiwan both make claims of sovereignty over them.

"I believe the attitude of the current government would put [the Senkaku Islands] at risk," Ishihara said. "The Tokyo metropolitan government will protect them."

Ishihara was deeply concerned over how the government reacted to an incident in which a Chinese trawler collided with two Japan Coast Guard patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands in 2010. The captain of the trawler was arrested but eventually released and sent back to China, even though the case against him had not officially been dropped at that point.

"The Senkaku Islands cannot be protected without taking extraordinary measures," the governor said at that time.

With an eye on Ishihara's visit to Washington, only a limited number of officials have been involved in negotiations to purchase three islets of the chain so that he could send a strong message to the central government, according to sources close to the governor.

The three islands--Uotsurijima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima--are owned by a man living in Saitama. There used to be a factory to process bonito on Uotsurijima, the largest in the group with an area of 3.82 square kilometres. The islet had a population of about 250 at its peak, but became uninhabited around 1940.

The owner was able to contact Ishihara thanks to Akiko Santo, a House of Councillors member who belongs to the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

"[Ishihara] showed [the Tokyo metropolitan government's] commitment to protecting both the nation and the Senkaku Islands by announcing that it plans to own [three of them]," Santo said.

Santo described the owner as "a friend of mine for 30 years", adding that the man had sometimes asked her for advice regarding his land.

"So many people have asked me to sell the islands, but I cannot do so to individuals whose backgrounds I don't know well," Santo quoted the owner as saying. "I'd like the central government to purchase them, but I cannot trust the current government."

The owner has left the management of the islets up to the central government by renewing leasing contracts every fiscal year since April 2002 with the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

However, the man thought it would be difficult for a private individual to continue to own them. He therefore contacted Ishihara via Santo because the two had known each other for years, according to the Diet member.

When Ishihara and Santo visited the man's home in September last year, the governor said, "The Tokyo metropolitan government will buy your land."

The owner eventually made up his mind to sell his property to the metropolitan government, saying, "I can leave [the three islands] up to Mr. Ishihara," according to Santo.

Purchase process unclear

Before purchasing the three islands, the Tokyo metropolitan government would have to conduct on-site studies and then refer the issue to an assessment council that determines the values of properties, according to the sources.

If the council approves the proposed purchase of the three islets, the local government would then ask for approval from the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. It hopes to sign a sales contract with the owner by the end of March next year, when his contract with the ministry expires.

Asked how much the islands would cost, Ishihara declined to give a figure. "It's not that expensive," he said.

The governor cited preserving natural and cultural heritage, as well as developing fisheries, as purposes for the purchase.

It is unclear, however, how the Tokyo metropolitan government can conduct on-site studies on the three islets because the ministry does not allow anyone to land on the Senkaku Islands while the central government is leasing them, mainly for "peaceful and stable" maintenance and administration purposes.

In the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, moreover, not only the LDP and New Komeito, which together hold a majority, but also the DPJ, the party with the largest number of seats, say it is too early to discuss the issue before seeing how it develops.

The purchase plan is expected to face many twists and turns, as objections against it are likely to arise, such as arguments that buying the three islands does not fit the administrative policies of the Tokyo metropolitan government, observers said.

 

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