China says it's ready to talk if Japan admits islands are in dispute

A member of the nationalist movement Ganbare Nippon holding a placard of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, among Japanese national flags during a rally in Tokyo on Sept 11, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
A member of the nationalist movement Ganbare Nippon holding a placard of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, among Japanese national flags during a rally in Tokyo on Sept 11, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - China said on Friday that it was ready to talk to Japan over an increasingly heated maritime row, but only if Tokyo declares the islands to be disputed.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi faced questions about ties with the United States ally during a visit to Washington, where he called for mutual respect in relations between the US and a growing China.

Mr Wang laid blame for tensions on Japan, which in September 2012 nationalised the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japanese and as the Diaoyus in Chinese.

"In spite of this, we are still ready to sit down and have a dialogue with the Japanese to work out jointly a way to manage the current situation," Mr Wang said at the Brookings Institution.

"But first, Japan needs to recognize that there is such a dispute. The whole world knows that there is a dispute," he added.

"I believe there will be a day when the Japanese come back to the table of dialogue."

Japan contends that China has no historical basis to claim the islands and charges that Beijing is trying to challenge Tokyo's rule through military intimidation.

Japan's coast guard reported on Thursday that two Chinese ships entered waters near the islands in the latest such incursion in the potentially energy-rich area.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meeting briefly this month with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Russia, called for an improvement in relations between Asia's two largest economies.

But the conservative Prime Minister has also pledged a firm line on defending sovereignty and has moved to step up officially pacifist Japan's defense spending and cooperation with the US.

A previous Japanese government said it bought the islands from private owners to ward off a more provocative plan by outspoken nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, who then headed Tokyo's metropolitan government.

The US says it takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands but considers them to be under the administration of Japan, meaning that the US would be obliged to defend its ally under terms of a security treaty.

"For many of us, it has been very upsetting to see the world's second and third-largest economies have their relationship become tense and deteriorate over what, to many of us on the outside, appear to be four uninhabited and uninhabitable rocks," Mr Jeff Bader, who was President Barack Obama's top adviser on Asia from 2009 to 2011, told Mr Wang as he moderated the event.

In his remarks, Mr Wang returned to the idea of a "new model of major country relationship" between China and the United States - a theme for Mr Xi when he met Mr Obama at the Sunnylands resort in California in June.

Mr Wang said that China and the United States "should genuinely respect and accommodate each other's concerns and interests" in the Asia-Pacific.

"We have never thought about pushing the US out of the region," he said.

"Rather, we hope the United States will play a positive role in safeguarding peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific" region, he said.

Mr Wang said he spoke to US officials about setting up a "reasonable threshold" for the resumption of long-stalled talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programme.

He highlighted recent comments by North Korea's chief negotiator Kim Kye Gwan who said in Beijing that Kim Jong Un's regime was ready to resume the six-nation talks "without preconditions".

"I believe our two countries, China and the United States, are in agreement on the goals of denuclearization and resolving this issue through dialogue," Mr Wang said.

But US officials have been skeptical of overtures by North Korea, which carried out a third nuclear test in February in defiance even of China, its primary ally.

US think-tanks said that, based on satellite images, North Korea may have recently restarted its main plutonium reactor.