China, Japan spar again over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands

Latest spat mars hope of better ties since their leaders' recent meeting

CHINA and Japan have crossed swords again over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, just days after the first summit by their top leaders which gave hope for improvement in their rocky ties.

A spokesman for China's embassy in Japan yesterday criticised Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida for his remarks that Japan has not changed its position that the East China Sea islands administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing are not in dispute.

According to Japanese media reports, Mr Kishida also said at a press conference on Tuesday that maritime tensions between both countries were caused by China's air defence identification zone in the East China Sea and activities by Chinese fishermen in the waters nearby.

"We express serious concern and opposition to comments from the Japanese," said the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy.

"Diaoyu islands are Chinese territory. The meaning and spirit of the four-point consensus reached by both sides days ago are clear."

The territorial dispute, which sparked turmoil in bilateral ties after Japan nationalised some of the islands in Sept 2012, was a key part of a four-point agreement reached by both sides last Friday.

The pact paved the way for President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet on Monday on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Beijing.

Their meeting - the first since both took power in late 2012 - was less than warm, with stiff body language, which signalled that challenges would remain in the bilateral ties.

Analysts say the latest war of words was not unexpected, given the ambiguity of the language used by both sides over the island spat in last Friday's agreement.

China's official Xinhua news agency, referring to the pact, had said: "The two sides have acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years over the Diaoyu Islands and some waters in the East China Sea."

The version from the Japanese foreign ministry was "both sides recognised that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands".

Analyst June Teufel Dreyer described the four-point agreement, which also included a resumption of political, diplomatic and security dialogue, as "an artfully crafted exercise in studied ambiguity".

"Each side can interpret the ambiguity to its advantage," said the China watcher from the University of Miami.

"China claims that Japan has agreed that there is a dispute over the islands; Japan claims with equal validity that it has not altered any of its long-standing principles," she noted.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg