Japan’s government underestimated how China would react to its decision to buy islands at the center of a bitter territorial dispute, Tokyo’s former envoy to Beijing said yesterday.
“I don’t know why such a decision was made in a hurried manner and at such a time” Uichiro Niwa told a news conference, speaking of then-Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement in September last year that he was buying three of the Senkakus.
Noda’s government maintained the purchase was little more than administrative — transferring uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) in China and the Diaoyutai Islands in Taiwan (釣魚台), which also claims them — from a private Japanese citizen to the state.
The administration made no secret of the fact that it was intended to outfox an attempt to buy the islands by the nationalistic then-mayor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara, which it judged would be a more serious provocation to Beijing.
“The government of Japan transferred ownership from an individual to the state based on its domestic law, but once an issue involves crossing waters, it becomes a diplomatic issue,” Niwa told reporters.
“I think [Japan] should have taken it more seriously and offered a diplomatic explanation to China,” he said.
The businessman-turned-envoy said Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) lost face when Noda announced the nationalization only days after Hu warned against the move.
The two leaders held unofficial talks on the sidelines of last year’s APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, during which Hu reportedly told Noda to understand Beijing’s seriousness and handle the case from a broad perspective.
“[Noda] made Hu Jintao lose face as head of state,” which led to “raging reactions” from Beijing, Niwa said.
“China is a country that places a great deal of importance on saving face,” Niwa added. “The Japanese side appeared to have underestimated it to a certain degree.”
The two countries have argued for decades about the ownership of the archipelago, but the dispute flared anew after Ishihara announced his bid. The nationalization sparked large demonstrations in China and cooled the multi-billion dollar trade relationship.
Beijing has repeatedly sent its ships, and latterly its planes, to the area in a bid to assert its control over the chain.
Last week a Japanese emissary met Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) and handed him a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The contents were not disclosed.