Diaoyu Islands

Japan plays down territorial dispute with China over Diaoyu Islands

To protect its business interests, Tokyo is trying hard not to inflame the situation with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

The notion that a territorial row between China and Japan is escalating appears to be lost on the Japanese side of the equation.

Despite reports this week that China is planning to carry out a thorough geographical survey of the disputed Diaoyu Islands - known as the Senkakus in Japan - little public attention is being paid to the dispute.

Over the past five days, only one of the main Japanese newspapers published an editorial that even mentioned China - a rather oblique piece in the Asahi newspaper calling on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to divide other nations in Asia to win backing for Tokyo's policies towards Beijing.

"I don't think that a survey is such a serious problem for Japan as it would have no tangible effect on Tokyo's effective control of the islands," said Masafumi Iida, a China analyst at the National Institute for Defence Studies. "It is possible that there will be no official response at all."

Abe's visit this week to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, where he is said to be trying to drum up regional support to counter China's growing territorial claims, is being reported in the Japanese press, along with the trip to China by former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, but in a very understated and almost reticent manner.

"The Japanese government is trying very hard not to inflame the situation with China and is publicly stating that the issue should only be solved through legal channels," said Koichi Ishiyama, a professor of journalism at Toin University of Yokohama.

"And I am sure that they are putting pressure on the Japanese media to not play up the situation surrounding the islands," he said.

Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, believes the entire dispute over the islands is being whipped up by an unpopular Chinese government in order to deflect public opinion away from its own shortcomings.

Ishiyama, a former reporter with the Keizai daily business newspaper, said his former employers would likely be under pressure not to devote too much space in their pages to the inevitable impact of the row on bilateral trade. "This whole situation has had a very severe impact on Japanese companies that do business in China, so papers here have decided on the same approach as the government," he said. "They're reporting the bare facts and playing the rest down. It's all about the money, really."

But should Chinese officials attempt to set foot on the islands, Japan would be obliged to take action, analysts agree.

According to Iida, any trespassers would probably be simply deported back to China as Japan continues to try to play down the entire dispute, although any acts of violence involved against Japanese authorities would lead to judicial processes being applied.

Shimada said: "If Chinese officials actually land, then that would constitute a clear violation of Japanese sovereignty and the administration of Shinzo Abe would have no choice but to arrest them."

Iida said: "It's a case of China exercising its growing national power, meaning that both the government and the Chinese people want more.

China was "being more assertive on the Senkakus and on the islands in the South China Sea that are controlled by the Philippines and Vietnam. But they are damaging their international reputation and will be very aware of the consequences of their actions".