Japan unfazed by China's warnings

Purchase of disputed isles is on despite show of military might in China

BEIJING - Expect rain over Diaoyu Islands, with temperatures between 25 and 27 deg C, flashed the forecast on state broadcaster China Central Television's daily weather report, which included the contested isles for the first time.

Indeed, the Chinese have kept up a stream of angry words at the Japanese, after Japan showed no signs of backing down in a spat over ownership of a group of strategic isles that has sparked protests from Beijing to Taipei and raised concern in Washington.

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said it was "impossible" for Japan to reconsider its purchase of the disputed isles it calls Senkaku.

"We demand that Japan immediately cancel its move to buy the islands," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in response.

"Japan shouldn't persist in its erroneous ways but should pull back from the edge, stop all its violations of China's sovereignty and return to the track of dialogue and negotiation," he added.

Top Chinese leaders, from President Hu Jintao to Premier Wen Jiabao to Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, have all taken turns to issue stern warnings to Tokyo. Defence Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng also warned on Tuesday: "We're closely watching events and reserve the right to take measures in response."

Local media carried reports of military exercises taking place in Nanjing, Jinan, Chengdu and Guangzhou, in what analysts describe as a warning to Japan.

The group of five isles and three rocks that are at the centre of the dispute were first annexed by Japan in 1895 but came under American occupation after the end of World War II. After Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, they came under Japanese administration once again. On Tuesday, the Japanese government signed a deal to nationalise three of the isles by buying them for 2.05 billion yen (S$33 million) from a private Japanese owner but China called the purchase "illegal".

The United States, which has said it will not take sides in the dispute, called for calm. "We think, in the current environment, we want cooler heads to prevail, frankly," Mr Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said on Tuesday.

But military expert Wang Xiangsui believes that Japan's move had the tacit approval, if not the support, of Washington. "Only after Japan has given China a tight slap did the Americans speak up," noted Professor Wang from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Analyst Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University said Japan is taking the chance to consolidate its control over the contested isles before China grows more powerful.

Meanwhile, anti-Japan protests broke out across China, including in Beijing, for the second day in a row. In Hong Kong, 15 activists scuffled with police as they tried to enter the Japanese consulate.

Some agencies have cancelled tours to Japan, and sales of Japanese cars and electronic goods in China have been hit. Even Chinese celebrities are showing support, with actress Li Bingbing skipping a movie premiere in Tokyo last week.

Incidentally, the CCTV weather report grouped the Diaoyu Islands together with Kaohsiung in Taiwan and the Xisha Islands. Xisha, also known as the Paracels, are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

hoaili@sph.com.sg