China hints Japan is courting 'strategic hostility' over islands

A territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea has touched off an escalating war of words.

Kyodo News/AP
In this Juy 1, 2013 photo, a Chinese surveillance ship, rear center, sails near Uotsuri island in Japanese, or Diaoyu Dao in Chinese, the biggest island in the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands.

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo, long weighed down by bitter memories of the Japanese invasion of China more than 75 years ago, are declining to a fresh low in a heated war of words. 

The tone of the barbed exchanges suggests that neither side is ready to compromise in the territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea that has soured relations between the two neighbors for the past nine months.

“I am not optimistic about any improvement,” says Liu Jiangyong, a Japan expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Beijing has reportedly offered to shelve its claim to the Diaoyu islands, which are known as the Senkaku in Japan, if Japan agrees to acknowledge that there is a territorial dispute over the islands.

Japan has consistently refused to do so, insisting that China has no claim to the specks of land that Tokyo took over at the end of the 19th century. “It is natural for us to maintain a resolute stance over an issue that we can never make concessions on,” said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga earlier this month.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, campaigning hard for Upper House parliamentary elections on July 21, said recently that Beijing was demanding a Japanese admission that the islands are disputed before any Sino-Japanese summit.

Mr. Abe dismissed that demand Sunday, saying that “it is wrong as a diplomatic stance to reject holding a summit meeting because conditions are not met.”

To Chinese eyes, Japan’s refusal to acknowledge China’s claim to the islands makes any summit pointless. “If the topic of the dialog, the dispute over the islands, doesn’t even exist for Japan, dialog would be meaningless,” argues Professor Liu.

The mood has grown uglier this week in the wake of Abe’s statement on Japanese television over the weekend that “every country takes pride in its history, so what is important is to have mutual respect.”

Coming a day after the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China, which marked the beginning of Tokyo’s brutal colonial expansion across large swathes of Asia, the remark sparked renewed anger in the government here about Japan’s ambiguous relationship with its past.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing was “shocked” by Abe’s remark and she returned to the theme Wednesday, urging Japan to “seriously reflect on history and draw a lesson from it. Only by doing so can Japan get along with its Asian neighbors.”

Beijing was also infuriated by the publication Tuesday of Japan’s annual Defense White Paper, which warned that China was engaging in “dangerous actions” around the Diaoyu islands and trying to change the status quo in the region “by force.”

China has been sending marine surveillance vessels into Japanese territorial waters – which Beijing claims as its own – at regular intervals, and also flying airplanes near the islands, obliging the Japanese air force to scramble its jets repeatedly.

But Beijing rejected the Japanese White paper as “malicious hype about the so-called China threat,” in the words of Ms. Hua, who blamed Japan for the tension surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands since the government bought three of them from their private owner last September and nationalized them.

Chinese analysts suggest that if the ruling coalition wins the parliamentary elections later this month, cementing Abe’s grip on power, he will be emboldened to take a more hawkish stand on foreign affairs, and perhaps seek to modify Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the country’s military forces a wider sphere of action.

That would be “playing with fire,” the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, warned in a commentary this week, and could “lead the Japanese people into an abyss of disasters.”

In the meantime, cautioned the Global Times, owned by the ruling Communist Party, “estrangement and confrontation between China and Japan” are growing dangerously deep.

“The conflicts are moving from historical and island disputes, which are supposed to be controllable,” the paper said, “to strategic hostility.”

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