Nationalism once again threatens to undermine the relative calm in the China-Japan relationship that has prevailed since the 2010 Senkaku crisis.
Although Chinese leaders are the oft-cited pawns of nationalist agitators, since April Japanese leaders appear to be seduced by the efforts of the controversial Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro to buy the disputed Senkaku Islands. If the sale is completed when the government’s current lease expires, it could trigger a potentially devastating crisis in Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese leaders seem unable or unwilling to condemn Ishihara’s efforts, which have unsurprisingly triggered assertive responses from China.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. on April 17, Ishihara suggested that his government might be interested in purchasing four of the Senkaku islands from their private owners. This is not the first time nationalists in Japan have triggered crises over the islands. In 1996 members of Nihon Seinensha constructed a lighthouse on Kita Kojima to support Japan’s use of the islands as basepoints in marking its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which sparked a six month crisis over the islands. Following that crisis however, leaders in Beijing and Tokyo agreed not to be provoked by nationalist provocations. Thus, when outspoken nationalist Diet member Nishimura Shingo landed on Uotsuri-shima in 1997, then Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Cui Tiankai noted that his actions “contravened the policy of the Japanese government.”
Such provocations from Ishihara are also not new. In the past, Tokyo’s governor gave a street address to Okinotorishima, an islet 1740km southeast of Tokyo that serves as the basis for Japan’s EEZ claim into the Pacific. China disputes Japan’s claim that the feature entitles it support its claims to an EEZ or an extended continental shelf. Although that effort was widely regarded as absurd, this time Ishihara has stumbled on an idea that seems to resonate with some portion of the Japanese population. Donations to fund the purchase of the islands have poured in, totaling 1.4 billion yen at the end of the July.