Seeking votes on territorial disputes

Japan has been drawn into territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia. How Tokyo ought to handle its three neighbours is a major issue in the ongoing campaign for the Dec 16 general election. The Straits Times' Japan Correspondent Kwan Weng Kin looks at what the country's key political figures have to say on the subject.

Play down the issue

THE manifesto of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) merely says the defence of all Japanese territory and territorial waters, including the Senkaku islands that the Chinese call Diaoyu, will be beefed up. The DPJ also adopts the official government stance that there is no territorial dispute with China over the islands.

Opposition parties, however, are taking issue with Mr Noda over the rupture of diplomatic ties with Beijing over the islands in September.

In a party leaders' debate earlier this month, Mr Noda explained: "We put the islands under national control for the sake of peaceful and stable management. But the Chinese reacted emotionally."

In April, then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara revealed his plan to buy the islands from its private owner. Mr Ishihara had long accused the central government of doing nothing to protect them.

It prompted the Prime Minister to order the government to buy the islands first, nationalising them and incurring the wrath of Beijing. This sparked widespread anti-Japanese protests in China.

Mr Noda has tried to get international opinion on Japan's side.

In September, he told the United Nations General Assembly that Japan will uphold the principle of solving territorial disputes peacefully according to international law. He also told reporters there will be no compromises with China over the dispute.

He has called for a dialogue with the Chinese to resolve the issue while pledging not to let the matter mar bilateral ties.

But so far the Chinese have not responded positively.

At recent summits attended by regional heads of government, Mr Noda failed to make even casual contact with Chinese leaders.

Stand up for Japan

MR SHINZO Abe, head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has hit out hardest at the DPJ. In a speech on Nov 24, he blamed the Noda administration for allowing continued incursions by Chinese government ships in the waters around the Senkaku islands, including territorial waters claimed by Japan.

"Japan's effective control of the islands could be put in danger in the near future," he said.

Mr Abe, who was prime minister for almost one year from 2006 to 2007, stresses the need to beef up the nation's response to China over the island dispute.

If his party regains power on Dec 16, he wants to allocate more money to the Japan Coast Guard to hire more personnel and buy more patrol boats.

"If we win, we will increase the budget of the coast guard and also the defence budget. We want to send a signal to China that if it raises its defence budget, we will follow suit," he added.

In another speech, Mr Abe suggested transferring decommissioned military ships to the coast guard.

"Even if we increase the coast guard's budget now, it will take two years for new ships to be ready. We can transfer 30-year- old decommissioned military vessels to the coast guard for their use and also use reserve soldiers to beef up the coast guard itself."

He noted that during the LDP era, no foreign leaders had landed on the Northern Territories, which the Russians also claim, or on Takeshima island, which Japan claims as its own but is occupied by South Korea.

In July, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev landed on Kunashiri, part of the Northern Territories, while South Korean President Lee Myung Bak landed on Takeshima in August.

"It sums up the failure of the DPJ's diplomacy in the past three years," Mr Abe said.

On the Senkaku issue, Mr Abe said there was no room for negotiations with China.

"It is Japanese territory. If the LDP wins, we will firmly protect our territorial waters. What China is doing now is to challenge our effective control of the islands," he said.

Mr Abe also accused the DPJ of not standing up to the Chinese.

"When I was premier, we said what we had to say and we improved bilateral ties," he said, giving himself a pat on the back.

Go for arbitration

AT A debate of 11 political party leaders earlier this month, Mr Shintaro Ishihara, the former Tokyo governor who now heads the Japan Restoration Party, blamed China for the deterioration in bilateral ties.

"I did what I had to do," said Mr Ishihara, whose plan to get the Tokyo government to buy the Senkaku islands prompted the Noda administration to buy them first, leading to a breakdown in diplomatic ties with China in September.

Mr Toru Hashimoto, Osaka mayor and co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party, has called on Japan to use the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to resolve the island dispute.

"We should use the ICJ to make clear Japan's stand on the issue," he told reporters when unveiling his party's manifesto last week.

Bringing the case to the ICJ, however, would mean that Japan will have to reverse its official stance that there is no territorial dispute with China.

On Takeshima, which is under the effective control of South Korea, Mr Hashimoto suggests joint management of resources.

"It is Japanese territory but we should jointly manage fishing rights and the use of marine resources in the vicinity of the island together with South Korea," he said.

wengkin@sph.com.sg