Thu, Feb 10, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Japan moves to a harder stance on contested islands

AFP , TOKYO, WITH STAFF WRITER

Japan said yesterday it had placed under state control a lighthouse built by nationalists on a disputed island in the East China Sea despite rival claims by China and Taiwan.

The 5.6m lighthouse was erected in 1988 by Japanese right-wing activists to mark a claim on Uotsuri-jima, the largest of the Diaoyutai islets, known in Japan as the Senkaku islands, which lie between Taiwan and Japan.

"Those who built the lighthouse said they can no longer run it," Vice Foreign Minister Shuzen Tanigawa told a news conference.

"Since they have abandoned the right of possession, it has been transferred" to the state, Tanigawa said.

"Japan has been saying [the islands] are traditional Japanese territory," he said.

"Even if we have some trouble, we are going to protect what we have to protect," he said.

The move comes amid rising tensions between Japan and China, including a dispute over a major gas field near the islands where a Chinese nuclear submarine intruded in November, setting off a two-day chase.

Tokyo has already informed Beijing of the transfer of lighthouse authority, Tanigawa said, adding that it had yet to receive any reaction from the Chinese side.

Japan declared the oil-rich but uninhabited islands to be part of its territory in 1895, the same year it annexed Taiwan.

The tiny islands were under control of the US, which used them for military drills until 1972, when they were returned to Japan together with Okinawa.

In the early 1970s, China and Taiwan made claims to the islands after oil deposits were confirmed in the area by a UN agency.

Last March, Japanese authorities arrested and deported seven Chinese activists after they went to the islands, causing a diplomatic row with Beijing.

The activists were the first people to land on the disputed islands since 1996.

Relations between Japan and China have been increasingly strained in recent months, in part over disputes about the nearby gas field where Beijing began drilling in 2003, despite Tokyo's protests.

In December, Japan for the first time listed China as a potential threat in revised defense guidelines.

China, in turn, has been incensed over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including war criminals.

China has refused all bilateral state visits because of Koizumi's pilgrimages. The Japanese premier defends his visits, but has not gone to the shrine this year.

Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Michel Lu (呂慶龍), yesterday said it was hoped that a conducive atmosphere for negotiation with Japan would result from the takeover of the lighthouse.

"The Japanese government's move to take control of the lighthouse is expected to create a calmer climate for future Taiwan-Japan negotiations," Lu said.

Lu insisted the Diaoyutai islets belong to the Republic of China.

"However, Taiwan's government will continue to hold talks with Japan to find a satisfactory solution to the dispute," Lu said.

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