BEIJING // Hopes that tensions between Japan and China could be eased by high-level talks yesterday were dashed when the two countries became caught in another spat over disputed territory in the East China Sea.
It had seemed that discussions between the two nations’ foreign ministers at a regional gathering in Hanoi had cleared the air, following the worst dispute between them for several years last month over the detention of a Chinese trawlerman.
After speaking with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, for an hour, the Japanese foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, said both sides had agreed to “make efforts to improve the ties between Japan and China and press forward the strategic, mutually beneficial relationship”.
Soon afterwards, however, hostilities were renewed when China accused its smaller neighbour of spreading “groundless distortions” relating to territory both countries claim as their own.
While the Chinese and Japanese prime ministers met briefly to shake hands yesterday, hoped-for sit-down talks between the pair were scrapped, reportedly at China’s insistence.
“I cannot say there won’t be any impact [on relations],” said the Japanese deputy chief cabinet secretary, Tetsuro Fukuyama, when asked about developments. “But what is essential is a calm response.”
Japan said problems developed over a “misunderstanding” concerning media reports in which Mr Maehara said China had agreed to resume negotiations on East China Sea oil and gas fields that sit within an overlap of what both countries say are their exclusive economic zones.
The Chinese state-run news agency released a report flatly denying this, with China claiming Japan had “inflamed” tensions over the East China Sea.
“Their actions have damaged the atmosphere,” the Chinese foreign ministry official Hu Zhengyue told reporters. “They are responsible for everything.”
During yesterday’s meeting, both sides repeated their claims to the islands that sparked last month’s confrontation, according to a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman.
Known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China and also claimed by Taiwan, they lie in energy-rich territory in the East China Sea. Last month’s row concerned a Chinese trawlerman detained when his boat struck two Japanese coastguard vessels near these islands.
Also discussed during the meeting were Chinese restrictions on the export of rare earth minerals to Japan. China, responsible for the vast majority of global production of the minerals, vital for various types of high-tech manufacturing, is said to have suspended exports to its neighbour in the wake of last month’s row.
“China said that it will not use this as a bargaining tool and that it is based on the Chinese view of protecting the environment and managing resources,” Mr Maehara said during his earlier comments yesterday.
The New York Times, which revealed the export ban last month, has since reported the embargo has been lifted.
When last month’s row developed, Beijing suspended high-level contacts between the countries and saw its demands for an apology over the trawlerman’s detention rebuffed by Tokyo, while Japan asked for compensation for damage to the coastguard vessels. China’s detention of four Japanese men over alleged filming in a military area added to the row.
There have been anti-Japan protests in China, while in Japan nationalists surrounded a bus containing Chinese tourists, kicking the vehicle and shouting abuse. The incident prompted China to issue a travel warning to its citizens.
According to Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, ultimately both sides would like to de-escalate tensions, but their room for manoeuvre is limited by rising nationalism in both countries. “The [trawler] incident has escalated nationalist feelings in both countries,” he said.
In this climate, he said immediate progress on territorial disputes would be difficult.
In China, grievances date from the Japanese occupation of parts of China during the Second World War. These have been enflamed by visits made by Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006, to the Yasukuni shrine that honours, among others, Japanese war criminals.
Anti-Chinese feelings in Japan, said Mr Cheng, stem from concerns over China’s growing power, the continued East China Sea territorial disputes and a feeling China has not appreciated past aid from its neighbour.
email@example.com * With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse