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Behind Japan's Senkaku strategy

When Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, said he wanted to buy three of the Senkaku Islands a couple of months ago, the Japanese government frowned on the ultra-nationalist maverick, who is one of the few remaining incorrigible Cold Warriors. Ishihara doesn't like the People's Republic of China and fears if his Tokyo metropolitan government doesn't buy the Uotsuri-shima and its nearby Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima, Japan can't defend them against a possible Chinese takeover.

While Ishihara is raising a needed fund for the purchase by asking for contributions from across Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced last week the intention of the Japanese government — which now leases the land of the three uninhabited islets from its private owners — to preempt the governor of the capital city. This comes as Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan is near mortally weakened by the rebellion led by Ichiro Ozawa, its first leader who left the party, together with 48 members of the Diet to form a new party.

Why should Noda nationalize the three islets of the small archipelago called the Tiaoyutais in Taiwan and the Diaoyutais in China, with both nations claiming sovereignty against Japan? Noda knows full well that his departure from the blue movement would make Tokyo's bad relations with Beijing worse and good relations with Taipei sour.

But he is convinced that it's the best way for his ruling party to survive a snap general election that is expected to come this fall after the passage by the Diet of the deficit-covering bond bill, which is necessary to execute a large portion of the fiscal 2012 budget. Ozawa's Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daichi (国民の生活が第一: People's Livelihood First Party), with the support of its ally Kizuna Party and the LDP, is certain to pass a no confidence vote on Noda who would be forced to call the election.

Japan is the weakest of the three claimants. It annexed the kingdom of the Ryukyus as a Japanese prefecture of Okinawa in 1879, but Qing China, the suzerain of the island kingdom which also paid tribute to the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo, didn't recognize the annexation, and a treaty was signed between Beijing and Tokyo which decided that the chain of Ryukyu islands north of Okinawa would belong to Meiji Japan and those south of it, the Tiaoyutai archipelago among them, to the Great Qing Empire. The treaty wasn't ratified and the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 broke out.

In 1885, the Japanese governor of Okinawa, Sutezo Nishimura, petitioned the Meiji government for taking formal control of the islands, but Kaoru Inonue, the foreign minister, opposed the annexation on grounds that Beijing would be suspicious if Japan erected a landmark staking its claim to them, and Aritomo Yamagata, the minister of the interior, turned down the Nishimura request.

It was on Jan. 14, 1895, while the war was still going on, that Japan incorporated the Senkaku Islands under the provincial administration of Okinawa, stating that it had conducted surveys since 1884 and that the islands were terra nullius, or no man's land, given that there existed no evidence to suggest that they had been under Chinese control. The incorporation, however, wasn't made public until 1950 after World War II.

After the Sino-Japanese war, the Qing court ceded “the island of Formosa and together with all the islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa” to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895. The treaty was nullified after World War II by the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951.

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