Whether it's a genuine attempt to steer Japan's foreign policy or a clever ploy to annoy political leaders in both Japan and China, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's plan to buy three disputed islands in the East China Sea is a dangerous game that has the potential to drag both Japan and the U.S. into a shooting war.
"This is a very serious issue and it's full of uncertainties. If it's not handled properly it could very well lead to armed conflict," says Kazuhiko Togo, director of Kyoto Sangyo University's Institute for World Affairs, and author of Japan's Territorial Issues: The Northern Territories, Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands.
Ishihara startled just about everyone this week when he announced plans for Tokyo Prefecture to buy three tiny islands in the Senkaku chain from private owners. He said the aim is to "protect" the islands from Chinese encroachment. Both China and Taiwan claim the islands, which they call the Diaoyou Islands, and officials in China were quick to denounce Ishihara's plans.
"The Diaoyou Islands have been China's inherent territory since ancient times and China holds indisputable sovereignty over them," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Japan and China nearly came to blows over the islands in 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in nearby waters. Japan seized the fishing boat and crew, but released them weeks later after massive street protests in Chinese cities and heavy economic and political pressure from Beijing.
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