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Why China, Japan, and S. Korea aren't backing down on island disputes (+video)

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Mr. Ishihara, a right-wing populist infamous for inflammatory statements about China and Japan’s other neighbors, had raised 1.45 billion yen in donations to buy the islands, develop facilities on them, and explore for oil and gas in the surrounding ocean. Although this would have been far more provocative than the national government’s current plan, which is to do nothing with the islands, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the purchase.

End of their tenures

In addition to the fractious history between Japan and China, leaders involved in the decisionmaking process are coming to the end of their tenures and are facing pressure at home not to give an inch.

“Neither government can be seen to be weak-kneed,” says University of Tokyo’s Professor Akio Takahara.  

One of China’s concerns is whether a new government in Tokyo, likely to be in power within months, will honor any promises Japan makes now regarding what it intends to do with the islands.

Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, may be forced into an election as early as November, with his Democratic Party of Japan trailing badly in the polls. Meanwhile, China’s Hu Jintao will be replaced as leader at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, expected to take place in Beijing in October. Both risk significant blows to their pride and legacy, should they lose ground on sovereignty before they go.

“This is now a very serious and dangerous game of chicken between China and Japan,” says Zhu Jian Rong, a Chinese expert on East Asia relations, speaking in Tokyo on Tuesday. “It’s like a war situation, where neither side can show any weakness or compromise.”

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