China, South Korea Slam Japan’s Claims Over Disputed Islands

Tokyo Metropolitan Governor Shintaro Ishihara
Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo's metropolitan governor. Photographer: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/GettyImages

China and South Korea slammed Japan’s claims to territorial rights over disputed Pacific Ocean islands, as rising tensions add to the risk of clashes over energy and fishing rights.

South Korea expressed “deep regret” that Japan chose to assert its claim to disputed islets for an eighth year in an annual defense white paper released today, and China said Japanese officials had made irresponsible and erroneous comments on a separate group of islands claimed by both nations.

The war of words underscores growing unease over China’s assertiveness in disputed waters, as countries try to use their territorial claims to support a push for undersea gas, oil and fishing rights. The tensions have led to skirmishes: The Philippines this month denounced “intimidation” from China and warned of possible “physical hostilities” at a regional security meeting following a two-month standoff with Chinese vessels over a disputed reef in the South China Sea.

“Recently we have noticed the irresponsible remarks made by some officials in Japan about the Diaoyu islands,” China’s Defense Ministry Spokesman Geng Yansheng said at a media briefing today in Beijing. “Such erroneous remarks will be met with the opposition of the Chinese people.”

Japan’s focus on China’s growing military strength has sharpened this year with a dispute erupting over rights to a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara unveiled plans to buy them. In May, China canceled a visit to Japan by a top general, Guo Boxiong.

Island Purchase

Japan’s central government has offered to buy three of the disputed islands for 2 billion yen ($25.6 million), the Sankei newspaper reported today. The private Japanese owner refused the offer, saying he prefers to sell the land to the Tokyo metropolitan government, the newspaper said. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters today that the report was incorrect, and declined to comment on the status of talks with the owner.

“The Senkaku dispute matters for its capacity to transform Japanese thinking about Chinese intentions,” Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based research institute, wrote in an e-mail. “Japan remains the third-largest economy in the world, and while it is deeply pacifist -- or defensive -- in security orientation, a change in its thinking would ripple throughout the region and could truly transform the region.”

Angry Rebuke

An editorial in the China Daily newspaper today said Japan’s territorial claims “do not hold water.” Japan’s claim over a separate group of islets controlled by South Korea sparked an angry rebuke from Seoul, with South Korea’s defense ministry demanding a correction and summoning Japan’s Seoul-based military attache, according to a statement on the foreign ministry’s website.

While China had the ability to safeguard its territorial integrity and maritime rights, much of its military technology is still outmoded, Geng said. The PLA has “a lot of old equipment” that “still lags far behind,” Colonel Lin Bai, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army’s General Armament Department, said at the same briefing.

China is making “smooth progress” in its development of an aircraft carrier, and tests and sea trials of the carrier will continue, Lin said. “The Great Wall was not built in a day,” he said.

More Difficult

The relationship between China’s People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party is becoming more complicated as the military modernizes, becomes more professional and undertakes a wider variety of duties, Japan’s Defense Ministry said in the white paper. A more professional military could be tougher for civilians to control, Toshinori Tanaka, director of the Strategic Intelligence Analysis Office, told Bloomberg News.

“The decision-making process has become less clear and that makes it more difficult to deal with,” Tanaka said.

Senior Colonel Wang Yongsheng, vice director of the People’s Liberation Army Political Research Office, told reporters in Beijing that the Chinese military was firmly under the control of the Communist Party.

“Some people hold the wrong view, calling for making the military less political-party oriented, less nationalized,” Wang said. “Some are even calling for the military to be separated from the leadership of the party. This is something we are firmly opposed to.”

Lack of Transparency

Japan reiterated its concern about the lack of transparency in China’s defense spending, which it said has grown 30-fold over the past 24 years. China is also expanding its ocean-based military presence, while intelligence-gathering missions have been observed in waters close to Japan, the report said.

The report reiterated Japan’s plans to beef up the defense of remote islands and surrounding waters where no military personnel are currently stationed. It also highlighted plans by Japan’s ally the U.S. to step up focus on Asia.

“Recognizing that many of its security and economic interests are closely linked to development in Asia, the U.S. is placing more importance on the Asia-Pacific and strengthening ties with its allies in the region,” the report said.

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