China and Japan trade insults at UN meeting

War of words erupts after Chinese accuse Tokyo of 'stealing' disputed isles

BEIJING - The territorial dispute between China and Japan has spilled onto the world stage as their diplomats traded harsh words and reopened old wounds at a United Nations meeting in New York.

Chinese diplomats accused Japan of behaving like a thief over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea.

In response, Japanese envoys derided China for using "illogical, unconvincing and unproductive arguments" to push its claims.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sparked the war of words when he criticised Tokyo for having "stolen" from Beijing a group of five islands and three rocks known to China as Diaoyu and to Japan as Senkaku.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly yesterday, Mr Yang said the uninhabited isles had belonged to China from ancient times but were seized in 1895 by Japan after its victory in the Sino-Japanese War.

He slammed Japan's Sept 11 decision to buy the islands from a private Japanese owner, which sparked protests across China and prompted retaliatory actions in business and tourism by Beijing.

Said Mr Yang: "The moves are totally illegal and invalid. They can in no way change the historical fact that Japan stole Diaoyu and its affiliated islands from China and the fact that China has territorial sovereignty over them."

He added that Japan's island purchase was in "outright denial" of its defeat in World War II.

Japan's Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Mr Kazuo Kodama, then attacked Mr Yang's assertion that Japan took the islands from China as one which "cannot logically stand".

He dismissed Mr Yang's references to World War II as "unconvincing and unproductive" as he defended Japan's control over the islands.

What followed was a heated exchange between him and China's UN envoy Li Baodong in full view of the world's diplomats.

Mr Li rebuked the Japanese delegate for "once again brazenly distorting history, and resorting to spurious fallacious arguments that defy all reason and logic to justify their aggression of Chinese territory".

After Mr Kodama repeated that the islands "are clearly an inherent territory of Japan", Mr Li again lashed out at his Japanese counterpart over his "feeling no guilt for Japan's history of aggression and colonialism".

Stealing the final word, the Chinese envoy retorted: "The Japanese government's purchase of the islands is based purely on 'the logic of robbers'."

The tense and heated atmosphere prompted another call for peace by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she met Mr Yang later on the sidelines.

"The Secretary... again urged that cooler heads prevail, that Japan and China engage in dialogue to calm the waters," a US official told reporters after the meeting.

But analyst Li Mingjiang said the dispute may not end any time soon, due to the political situation in both countries.

With China facing a leadership change and Japan possibly holding Lower House polls as early as November, it is hard for both to be seen compromising, he said.

China's ultimate demand for Japan to undo its purchase, for instance, is not realistic, added Professor Li from Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The dispute has worried even famous Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who warned about the danger of nationalism in fuelling the tensions.

Equating nationalism with "cheap liquor", he wrote in the Asahi Shimbun yesterday: "Cheap liquor gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical.

"It makes you speak loudly and act rudely... But after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning."

kianbeng@sph.com.sg