East China Sea: Japan’s new PM Suga faces test as China pushes Diaoyu claims with digital museum
- Tokyo has lodged an official complaint over a new website detailing Beijing’s sovereignty claims over the disputed islands, known in Japan as the Senkakus
- Experts say Beijing may be testing the new leader’s mettle – but it risks forcing his government into taking a tougher stance
Analysts warn that the new site detailing Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands could force the new Japanese government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to take a far firmer line on the matter with China.
The website is being operated by the National Marine Data and Information Service of China, an agency of the national government, and went live on Saturday. The slickly produced site takes visitors on a tour of a virtual museum and is titled “Diaoyu Dao: The Inherent Territory of China.”
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The uninhabited islands are presently administered by Japan, which refers to them as the Senkakus.
The site is at present solely in Chinese, but versions in Japanese, English and French will soon be available, indicating that Beijing intends to use the data as a tool to promote its claim to sovereignty in the wider international community.
The site states that Japan “stole” the islands following the Meiji Restoration of 1872, a period of rapid economic and social development, and backs up its claims with historical documents and maps.
The site also has three exhibition halls, video presentations and a topographical map of the islands, displaying the “legal and historical proofs that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China,” it states.
In a statement issued to the South China Morning Post, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo said: “The Senkaku Islands are an inherent territory of Japan, both historically and under international law, and are actually effectively controlled.
“The Chinese side is not in a position to create a website for the Senkaku Islands, which is a territory of Japan, and claims based on the Chinese side’s position are not accepted,” the ministry said.
“From this point of view, we have protested about the website through diplomatic channels and requested that it be deleted.”
In terms closely resembling those of the Chinese claim, the museum says the Senkakus “are clearly an inherent part of the territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based upon international law.
The displays include documents detailing the “lawful” incorporation of the islands into Japanese territory, along with maps and photographs of Japanese people living on the islands in the early decades of the last century to support that claim.
Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, said the timing of the launch of the website was “unfortunate”.
“It looks very much as if the two sides have been working to have a better relationship since [Prime Minister Yoshihide] Suga came to power, to start a new first page in bilateral ties,” he said.
Indeed, he said, the website could be seized upon by conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as a clear sign China had “no intention of taking part in sincere talks with Japan on this or other issues,” he said.
Yakov Zinberg, a professor of East Asian studies at Tokyo’s Kokushikan University, said it was not surprising that China had set up the website given that Japan has had a museum to support its claims since January 2018. He warned, however, that China was risking backing Suga – who has already shown willingness to communicate with Xi – into a corner.
“He has demonstrated intent to improve relations with Beijing, but now he has little option as a new prime minister to show himself to be tough on Japan’s rivals,” Zinberg said.
“He is new and he is being watched carefully; he faces an election to remain leader of the party in one year’s time and he has to satisfy all the elements in the party that approved of Abe’s strong line on China,” he said.
There was a “degree of disappointment” among many conservatives that Abe did not manage to solve issues surrounding Japan’s territorial claims and Suga will now find himself under pressure to achieve what his predecessor was unable to do, he said, adding that the prime minister “does not have a lot of room to manoeuvre”.
Another possibility is that the opening of the website is an early test of Suga’s mettle by China, with Beijing monitoring his reactions and the degree of firmness in his response, Zinberg said.
“I feel that all of Japan’s territorial issues will come to the fore in the near future and that Suga has no choice but to adopt a nationalistic tone or he will fail in the next leadership election.”