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September 26, 2017

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Island plans by Tokyo's nationalist governor may stoke fresh China tensions

TOKYO -- Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a fiery nationalist whose failed bid to buy a group of disputed islands ignited a crisis with China, is pushing ahead with a plan to build structures there to hammer home Japan's claim, officials involved told Reuters.

Although such a move is not imminent, it would be certain to strain Japan's already shaky relations with China and could prompt a rebuke from the Obama administration, which has urged both sides to ease tensions by setting aside the dispute.

Ishihara's gambit appears aimed at forcing a new showdown in the island dispute with China. It is based on the view that Japan's main opposition -- the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -- is likely to take power in an election in the coming months and that it would be receptive to his hard-line policies, two officials close to Ishihara said.

Akiko Santo, a member of the House of Councillors from the LDP, said Ishihara would try to win support from a new government to use about $19 million he has raised from contributors to build some basic infrastructure on the islands.

Ishihara's deputy, Naoki Inose, has confirmed the plan.

They claim that construction of a lighthouse, radio transmitter or basic harbor facilities would increase safety for Japanese fishermen. It was not clear how -- or even whether -- such private funds could be used for construction on government property.

Ishihara set off the slide in Japan-China relations with his initial bid to buy the islands, ensuring his next steps in the dispute will be scrutinized.

Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said Ishihara's push could "re-create the situation we have just gone through -- strong reaction from China followed by demonstrations and attacks on Japanese companies."

That effort was thwarted when the national government outbid Ishihara last month with a taxpayer-funded bid to acquire three of the isolated islands called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's nationalization of the islands was intended to keep them from Ishihara and to head off a more damaging confrontation with China.

But the Japanese government's move triggered a wave of protests in China that shuttered Japanese factories and stores, disrupted trade and prompted Beijing to strengthen its own claim to the disputed territory.

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