TOKYO — Japan's former envoy to China says his country erred in choosing to buy islands claimed by both Japan and China last fall, infuriating Beijing, and now both sides have no choice but to allow the issue to cool.
Uichiro Niwa, a former trading house executive who served as ambassador to Beijing from mid-2010 until late last year, told reporters on Monday that the purchase of the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea by Japan's central government was poorly timed and seemed driven by factors he could not explain.
"They may have had access to information that I didn't know," Niwa said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "But from my personal point of view the timing was bad."
Niwa, the first private sector figure to be chosen as ambassador to China, found himself at odds with the Japanese government, especially after then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed ahead with a plan to buy several of the islands from their private owner.
The purchase was apparently aimed at pre-empting a plan by outspoken Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to not only buy the islands but develop them, but Beijing was outraged. The islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan, have been under Japanese control for decades, but Beijing says they have been Chinese territory for centuries. Taiwan also claims them.
The purchase prompted sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests in China and hammered exports to Japan's biggest overseas market.
"The Japanese government should have taken into account the possibility that this may have been a point of contention," Niwa said. At the very least, he said, Japan needed to provide "a better explanation to China and to the international community."
Niwa, whose former company Itochu Corp. has extensive interests in China, faced criticism from some in Japan for not being tough enough toward China regarding the disputed islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of gas, oil and other undersea resources.
The first envoy named to replace Niwa, Shinichi Nishimiya, died before he could take up his position in Beijing, which was later filled by veteran diplomat Masato Kitera.
Apart from confrontations between Chinese and Japanese vessels near the islands, both sides have scrambled fighter jets to trail each other's planes, raising the risk of missteps that could lead to a clash.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office a month ago following a landslide parliamentary election victory by the Liberal Democratic Party, appears to be seeking to cool tensions.
Last week, a senior envoy conveyed a letter from Abe to Chinese leader Xi Jinping that struck a cordial tone and noted the two sides' "shared responsibility for peace and prosperity" in the region.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama arrived in China on Monday in the latest effort to use diplomatic backchannels to improve ties. Former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama also recently visited. Both senior leaders are considered friendly to China.
Niwa said that based on his many meetings with top communist party officials, he believed Beijing would not want the territorial tensions to veer into armed conflict.
But he said he believed the Chinese side viewed Tokyo's actions as a violation of an unstated agreement to avoid raising the dispute.
"There was a feeling on the Chinese side that Japan violated a relationship of trust," he said. Coming shortly after a meeting between Noda and Chinese President Hu Jintao, it was viewed in Beijing as an "insult."
"It is unfortunate the Japanese side misread the situation," he said.
Commenting on the ongoing dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Monday emphasized the need for the sides to "overcome the prominent difficulty and work toward the strategic mutually beneficial relations between China and Japan."
However, Hong also expressed concern about a report that Japan was boosting defense spending, in part to deal with increased Chinese activity around the islands.
"We hope Japan can take the path of peaceful growth, respect the concerns of other countries in the region, learn from history and focus their efforts more on regional peace and stability," Hong said at a regularly scheduled press briefing.
Niwa said that regardless of why relations between China and Japan have deteriorated, given their close relations as neighbors and trading partners, both sides have no choice but to take a break and cool off.
"If we were a married couple, we could opt for a divorce, but we cannot," Niwa said. "There is simply no other choice."