Sino-Japanese meeting fails to ease tension over disputed islands

BEIJING - China and Japan remain locked in a bitter territorial spat over a cluster of uninhabited isles in the East China Sea, after a peace-brokering meeting failed to ease tensions that flared anew yesterday.

Coast guard vessels from Japan and Taiwan - also a claimant - resorted to using water cannon after 40 Taiwanese fishing boats entered waters near the contested isles that Tokyo calls Senkaku. Taipei refers to them as Diaoyutai, and Beijing as Diaoyu.

Ties between Asia's two biggest economies, whose bilateral relationship is worth US$340billion (S$416billion), have been on tenterhooks since Japan's decision on Sept11 to "nationalise" three of the disputed islands by buying them from a private owner.

Yesterday, China's Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun and his Japanese counterpart, Mr Chikao Kawai, met in Beijing to find ways to resolve the dispute.

But a statement issued by the Chinese foreign ministry after the meeting did not indicate any concrete outcome, though it said both sides had "a candid and in-depth exchange of views".

Mr Zhang slammed Tokyo at the talks, saying: "Japan must abandon any illusion, face up to its erroneous actions and correct them with credible steps."

Kyodo News reported that both sides agreed to continue discussions but failed to reach a consensus on whether their foreign ministers would be meeting this week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The chill in ties has sparked protests in both countries and cancellations of visits by their officials and businessmen. Beijing has shelved indefinitely a key event this week to mark 40 years of bilateral ties.

China has also been taking steps to bolster its claims, announcing the names and geographical coordinates for the contested islands, providing daily weather reports on the area, and deploying patrol ships near the disputed zone. It upped the ante yesterday with a 7,000-word White Paper arguing its case for control and urging Japan to respect history and international law and cease actions that undermine China's sovereignty.

Taiwan, which has been relatively subdued on the issue, sent a 60-strong flotilla in protest against Japan's nationalisation decision. The vessels arrived near the islands early in the morning, sporting the Taiwanese flag and banners proclaiming the islands as Taipei's. For nearly four hours in seas whipped up by strong winds, the Japanese coast guard attempted to chase away the Taiwanese vessels. At times, the Japanese vessels almost collided with the Taiwanese fishing boats.

At one stage, the Taiwanese coast guard ships directed their water cannon at the Japanese vessels, which were spraying water at the fishing boats, despite the fact that, under international law, ships belonging to national authorities are not supposed to do so in territorial waters.

In reply to repeated warnings from the Japanese, the Taiwanese insisted they were in Taiwanese territorial waters and therefore engaged in legitimate activity. Just before noon, they were seen heading for home.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters that Japan did not want to jeopardise relations with Taiwan but stressed the government was monitoring the situation. "We told the Taiwanese authorities their ships must not enter our waters," said the government's chief spokesman. "This matter should be resolved in the context of good Japan-Taiwan relations."