Japan is considering stationing troops near islands at the center of a row with China, a news report said yesterday, but Beijing’s move to ease mineral exports raised hopes for an easing of friction.
Asia’s two powerhouses have been embroiled for over three weeks in their worst diplomatic spat in years, triggered by Japan’s arrest of a Chinese captain after a tense maritime incident near the islets in the East China Sea.
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, considered a China hawk, said he hoped for an improvement in relations, but also said that amid the row “people in the whole world saw a part of China’s essential character.”
Although Japan last week freed the skipper, a war of words has raged on, with China pursuing a multi-faceted offensive of official diplomatic protests and unofficial economic measures.
Japan’s defense ministry has asked for a budget to study a plan to station ground troops in Japan’s southwestern islands near the disputed island chain, the Nikkei Shimbun reported.
The only Japanese troops permanently stationed in the far south are on Okinawa, but the plan calls for troops on Yonaguni, close to Taiwan.
China insists that the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyutai (釣魚台) in Chinese, have been part of its territory since ancient times. Taiwan also claims them.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan denied reports yesterday that he had sent an envoy with a letter to Beijing to seek a meeting, saying: “I have no knowledge about the issue.”
TV Asahi reported that lower house lawmaker Goshi Hosono, former deputy secretary general of Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan, arrived in Beijing yesterday afternoon and went into the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.
“Sources said he has a personal letter from Prime Minister Kan,” the report said, showing footage of the lawmaker at Beijing’s airport.
In another sign that tensions may be gradually easing between the economic powerhouses, Japanese traders reported that China had dropped a de facto ban on crucial mineral exports.
Katsuyuki Matsuo, chairman of Kan Material, which specializes in the rare earth trade with China, said Chinese customs had resumed procedures for exports on Tuesday, although he added that “inspections on all Japan-bound cargo are still being tougher than usual.”
Another trader who wished to remain anonymous said previous blanket inspections on all goods were being eased.
However, “the situation differs from port to port, because it is not an official ban on exports. Rather, it is harassing behavior,” he said.
Beijing has denied claims it blocked the shipments of rare earths, a market in which it has a virtual global monopoly and which Japan’s high tech firms rely on for making everything from wind turbines to hybrid cars.
Japanese Economics Minister Banri Kaieda said that “in reality there is an export ban on rare earths,” the Financial Times reported yesterday.
“It’s important that China stop this extremely abnormal action at the earliest possible time,” he was quoted as saying.
“There’s a need to put effort into developing substitute products,” Kaieda said.
Meanwhile, Japanese researchers said they had developed a hybrid vehicle motor that uses no rare earth minerals, Kyodo news agency said yesterday.