A territorial dispute over remote islands fueled an angry exchange between China and Japan at last year’s UN General Assembly and sent relations to a new low. Whether the dispute plays out again at the world body this year will be a sign of how high the tensions remain.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the General Assembly on Thursday that his nation’s interests are firmly connected to the stability of open seas and “changes to the maritime order through use of force or coercion cannot be condoned under any circumstances.”
It was Abe’s first appearance at the annual gathering of world leaders since he was elected in December last year. He did not directly mention China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) was scheduled to speak yesterday.
Beijing and Tokyo are not even close to settling their dispute over the islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan. Over the past year, China has increased patrols near the Japanese-administered islands that it calls the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) and which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands. Taiwan claims them as the Diaoyutais (釣魚台).
The cat-and-mouse game between Chinese and Japanese ships and aircraft continues.
Last year’s assembly came two weeks after Japan’s government bought three of the five unoccupied islands in the chain from a private owner. Japan portrayed the purchase as an attempt to block a proposal from a nationalist politician to buy and develop the islands, which would have angered Beijing even more.
China was not persuaded by that explanation. It launched a stinging verbal attack on the floor of the General Assembly, accusing Japan of stealing the islands and “grossly violating” what it said had been part of China’s territory since ancient times.
The unusually blunt language prompted a stiff response from Japan, which said it had every right to the land. China retorted that Japan had an “obsolete colonial mentality” — a reference to Japan’s conquests during the first half of the 20th century.
While the threat of military escalation persists, the diplomatic heat appears to have cooled a bit after a five-minute exchange between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) earlier this month on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Russia.
In Washington on Sept. 20, Wang acknowledged China’s close people-to-people and business ties with Japan and said his country was open to dialogue to find a way out of the standoff. However, he reiterated a condition that Japan is unwilling to accept — that it formally recognize the sovereignty dispute.
The islands stir a depth of nationalist passion that belies their size and remoteness. They are located roughly midway between Taiwan and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa and cover a total area of just 6km2.
Japan’s formal claim to the Senkaku Islands dates back to 1895 during the First Sino-Japanese War, but it says the islands were not the spoil of conquest, but acquisition of an unoccupied territory. China argues the islands have belonged to it for centuries and should be returned to its control.
Prominent Republican US Senator John McCain contended last week that Japan-China tensions are higher than at any time since the end of World War II. That is a major concern for Washington as a conflict risks sucking in the US, a Japanese treaty ally.
Over the past year, Japan’s coast guard says there have been more than 200 intrusions by foreign vessels into Japanese-claimed waters near the islands.