The Japanese ambassador to China sounded a strong warning on strained bilateral ties following the recent flare-up of a territorial dispute, declaring the situation so dire that it could set back diplomacy between the two nations to a time before they normalized relations 40 years ago.
Uichiro Niwa, who returned to Japan on a temporary visit, stressed the urgency to resolve the “territorial issue” over the Senkaku Islands, China's Diaoyu Islands, at the earliest possible time, in an address on Oct. 20.
“The status of bilateral relations might be set back to more than 40 years ago (if the dispute is not settled soon),” Niwa told an audience at Nagoya University, his alma mater. “Otherwise, efforts by many Japanese prime ministers (to maintain good relations with China) over the past four decades could come to naught.”
He said that both nations should never let that occur.
“As Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai said, both sides will get hurt in the squabble, with their economies, cultures and art affected,” Niwa, 73, said. “We have to stem the escalation of the feud.”
Niwa described the current souring of Japan-China relations as one the two nations have never experienced since the two countries normalized relations in 1972.
“It is essential for the Japanese side to realize that the recent standoff is totally in a different sphere, compared with the bickering over former Prime Minister Junichiro Koziumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and a Chinese fishing boat’s ramming of Japan Coast Guard vessels off the Senkaku Islands (China's Diaoyu Islands, in 2010),” the ambassador said.
Koizimi’s controversial six visits to the shrine when he was in office from 2001-2006, which memorializes Class-A war criminals along with the war dead, angered China.
But the issue did not concern China’s sovereignty claims, Niwa said.
The Japanese government takes the position that there is no “territorial issue” between Japan and China, arguing that Japan has sovereignty over the islets in the East China Sea.
The Japanese government and the public, he said, do not appear to be fully aware of the sweeping change in the mood in China after the government purchased three of the Islands on Sept. 11.
Prior to that, Chinese were preoccupied with earning a paycheck and rises in the prices of their daily commodities and other necessities. But the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands changed the political landscape dramatically.
“Now, Chinese TV programs constantly show the Japanese flag and a photo of my face,” The ambassador said. “And the TV says in simple language that Japan is a thief who stole Chinese territory. Even elementary school children can connect the flag, theft and my photo. In China, I am feeling like I'm the ring leader.”
Niwa said many Japanese volunteers teaching Japanese or working as caregivers, on a program by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, are also feeling a sense of great tension.
“This is the first time they report such a situation since I came to China,” said Niwa, who became ambassador to China in 2010.
On Aug. 27, the Japanese flag was ripped from the hood of Niwa's limousine in a highly publicized incident after it was forced to stop on a Beijing street. Two Chinese men were ordered detained for five days in connection with the theft.
Niwa said he still travels in Beijing in his limousine with the Japanese flag on his hood, which he said has become the most-recognized foreign flag in China after the flare-up.
“Everybody now stares at the car when we stop at a traffic signal,” he said. “But some Chinese motorists are pulling over to the side for us.”
Niwa discussed his serious concern about bilateral relations when he met with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Oct. 18.
Niwa was supposed to be replaced with a new ambassador in September, but he is still in the job after his designated replacement, Shinichi Nishimiya, passed away suddenly on Sept. 16. Beijing has not given consent to a successive appointee, Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Masato Kitera.
To resolve a territorial dispute, Niwa said leaders of the two neighbors should demonstrate leadership and build trust with each other while maintaining political stability at home.
He referred to the resolution of the long-running territorial feud between Germany and France as an example to emulate.
Niwa expressed hope for Japan to make efforts to improve ties with China as Xi Jinping prepares to take over in November as the nation’s new leader.
After many Japanese stores and factories were damaged in a recent wave of anti-Japan demonstrations that erupted across China, many business executives have begun to argue the risks of deepening economic ties with China.
But Niwa said that no nation is free from potential risks, including Japan, and that business executives take such concerns into consideration before they decide to make inroads into foreign markets.
“It is wrong to talk about China risk alone,” said Niwa, who served as president and chairman at Itochu Corp., one of the largest trading houses in Japan. “We need to recognize that it poses a great risk to Japan to lose the Chinese market.”