A high-level Chinese official has called for talks with Japan over a disputed island chain, in an apparent attempt by Beijing to cool tensions that have seen both sides scramble jet fighters to the area in recent days.
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin (賈慶林) made the gesture at a meeting in Beijing with former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the official China Daily newspaper reported yesterday.
Japan has steadfastly refused past calls by China to hold talks over the islands, with Tokyo arguing that it holds sovereignty over the islets and thus there is nothing to negotiate.
Jia is believed to be the highest-ranking Chinese official to publicly issue such a call, and the mild tenor of his remarks — omitting China’s standard accusation that Japan is wholly responsible for the frictions — was seen as a signal Beijing hopes to arrest momentum toward an all-out crisis.
“The two sides should appropriately handle questions surrounding the Diaoyu Islands (釣魚嶼) and other issues on which their stances’ differ,” Jia said, using the Chinese term for the tiny uninhabited islands lying north of Taiwan.
Japan, which controls the islands, calls them the Senkakus, while Taiwan, which also lays claim to them, calls them the Diaoyutais (釣魚台).
Jia is due to retire in March and Hatoyama has long been an advocate of closer ties with China, though he has lost influence under new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China’s call for talks in a meeting on Wednesday could represent a way to ask for talks that is less risky than an official, high-level exchange.
However, Japan showed no sign of budging from its position.
Responding to reports that Hatoyama had agreed with Jia on the need for negotiations — and that the islands were in dispute — Japan’s chief Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga expressed the Abe government’s disapproval.
“This is clearly not a comment that reflects the position of the Japanese government and we very much regret that someone who was once the prime minister of our country would make such remarks,” Suga told reporters in Tokyo.
Feng Wei (馮偉), a researcher at Fudan University’s Japanese Studies Center in Shanghai, said that Jia represents “the official stance, which is to ease tensions.”
“That’s also why he [Hatoyama] was invited to China in the first place. It’s highly symbolic,” Feng said.
Also yesterday, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell called for “quiet diplomacy” between Japan, China and South Korea over territorial disputes in northeast Asia, but said the US would not play the role of mediator.
Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated demands that Tokyo do more to ease tensions.
“The priority now is for Japan to make real efforts and do something real to improve China-Japan relations,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said.