Islands row: Call to China to 'stay calm'

Japan's new Foreign Minister says spat should not be allowed to worsen

CHINA should take a measured position on the island dispute with Japan so that the two nations could approach their ties from a "strategic perspective", says Japan's new Foreign Minister.

"We'd like to request China to stay reserved and calm," Mr Fumio Kishida told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview yesterday.

"We need to see the whole situation from a broader, wider perspective, and also look at China-Japan relations strategically."

Mr Kishida, echoing his Prime Minister, Mr Shinzo Abe, stressed that the islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China were the "inherent territory of Japan". But he added that the row, which has hurt economic ties, should not be allowed to worsen.

China is Japan's largest trade partner and hosts more 20,000 Japanese firms.

"The negative economic impact has been significant for both Japan and China," he said.

In Tokyo earlier yesterday, Mr Abe said it was a "mistake" for China to inflict harm on Japanese businesses and nationals in China.

"There is no change in our position that we will firmly protect our territory. There is no room for negotiation," he told reporters.

Mr Kishida is on a four-nation swing through the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia.

On the South China Sea dispute, he called for stakeholders to convene under the auspices of international fora such as the East Asia Summit and the Asean Regional Forum to discuss the issue.

Another possible framework is for China and Asean to push ahead with a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, he said.

On Thursday, Mr Kishida had offered to help the Philippines with what it sees as "very threatening" activity by China in the South China Sea, Reuters quoted Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario as saying.

Japan would supply the Philippines with 10 coast guard vessels and communications equipment.

Japan has been arming itself, raising fears that the country under Mr Abe could be heading to the right. But Mr Kishida said that such fears were "unwarranted".

It was reported early this week that Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party sought an increase of more than 100 billion yen (S$1.4 billion) in the defence budget to deal with an emboldened China.

In Japan's neighbourhood, he said, referring to North Korea and China, "one country has been developing nuclear capabilities with missile capabilities, while another has been increasing its defence spending in the two-digit range for two decades".

Such developments have raised concern not just in Tokyo but across wider Asia, he said.

In the 40-minute interview, Mr Kishida said the US-Japan alliance remained the "cornerstone" of Tokyo's diplomacy. He added that Tokyo also put great store by its ties with Asean.

"Japan attaches great importance to Asean, as cooperation increases with Asean member states in economic, social, security and political areas," he said.

Mr Kishida called on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana yesterday. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam also met and hosted Mr Kishida to lunch.

"Minister Kishida's early visit to the region reflects the importance that Japan attaches to its relations with Asean. Our leaders expressed Singapore's strong support for the deepening of Japan's engagement of Asean," Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

williamc@sph.com.sg