Shuffling the ambassadors

08/20/2012
By

A few small rocks in the middle of the China Sea are creating big diplomatic waves

TOKYO (majirox news) — Japan announced plans to replace its ambassadors to China, South Korea and the United States.

The Senkaku Islands, disputed by Japan, Taiwan, and China, appears to lie at the heart of this shuffle. The island of Takeshima/Dokto, claimed by Japan and Korea, on which South Korean President Lee Myung Bak landed in August, and where a monument claiming Korean sovereignty has been erected plays a role here.

Japan started the process of taking this latter issue to the International Court of Justice, though Seoul has snubbed the proposal. Japan claims that Takeshima is an inherent part of Japan, though Korea maintains a permanent presence there, and has controlled the island since the war. However, Japan’s ambassador to South Korea, Masatoshi Muto, has been recalled to Tokyo, and is likely to be replaced by Koro Bessho.

The Senkaku islands, undeniably under Japanese control, present a different problem. Chinese nationalists have landed and planted their country’s flag, and have been subsequently deported as having illegally entered Japan. In return, Japanese nationalists have landed and raised the Rising Sun there, sparking well-publicized protests in a number of Chinese cities and a flurry of less-than-diplomatic exchanges between the two countries.

Uichiro Niwa, appointed from the private sector two years ago, is the first non-bureaucrat ever to serve as Japan’s ambassador to China. However, since he has taken up his post, relations between the world’s number two and three economies have deteriorated. Deputy foreign minister Shinichi Nishimiya will replace him.

The dispute places the US in a quandary. On the one hand, it cannot afford to offend its main trading partner, China, by being seen to take Japan’s side too openly. On the other, the US-Japan security treaty should be seen to be honored. Relations in this area are already strained by the large US military presence on Okinawa, and the planned deployment of the controversial MV-22 Osprey aircraft. The top Japanese Foreign Ministry’s bureaucrat, Kenichiro Sasai is posed to move to Washington, where he will have to deal with all these issues.

If these spats over the islands (or to be more accurate, over the territorial waters surrounding them) continue, Japan’s diplomatic skills are going to be severely tested over the coming months.

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