April 23 (Bloomberg) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to use force if necessary to defend islands also claimed by China as tensions rose over visits by his fellow lawmakers to a Tokyo shrine seen in Asia as a symbol of wartime aggression.
China and Japan each issued formal protests today over the presence of each other’s vessels in waters around the islands, which lie in an area rich in resources including fish and oil. Abe today told a parliamentary committee that the government would not allow any Chinese boats to land on them.
“In the unlikely event that they were to land, it would be natural to expel them by force,” he said.
His comments came as 168 Japanese lawmakers visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a day after China and South Korea complained about a weekend visit by Finance Minister Taro Aso. Aso sought to downplay the significance of the visits, saying they would have no bearing on foreign relations.
Japan’s purchase of the islands in September sparked protests across China, harming a $340 billion trade relationship that has yet to recover for companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. The Yasukuni visits and competing patrols imperil efforts to repair a relationship that may be at the lowest point since ties were normalized in 1972.
“Relations between China and Japan are at their worst since diplomatic ties were established,” said Rumi Aoyama, a professor of Chinese studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. “At this point, it’s about maintaining lines of communication to make sure things don’t get worse. Sovereignty and understanding of history are problems on which neither Japan nor China wants to compromise.”
Abe said today the presence of the Chinese boats was “regrettable,” while reiterating that “the door is always open to talks with China.”
Eight Chinese vessels were in waters administered by Japan as of 3 p.m., the Japanese Coast Guard said. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Chinese surveillance ships “drove away” Japanese fishing boats in the waters, citing the State Oceanic Administration.
The East China Sea islands are known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. A group of Japanese activists are scheduled to take a regular fishing trip to waters around the islands by April 25, according to a statement on the activists’ website.
Today’s visit to Yasukuni was made by the largest group of politicians to go since records were first kept in 1989, Kyodo News said. The shrine is viewed in China and Korea as a symbol of military atrocities during Japan’s occupation of much of Asia in the first half of the 20th century. Yasukuni commemorates Japan’s war dead, including World War II leaders convicted by an international tribunal of war crimes.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se yesterday canceled a trip to Tokyo where he was to have met his counterpart Fumio Kishida, without giving reasons. The ministry released a statement expressing “deep concerns” over Aso’s visit to the shrine, while China also lodged a protest.
“There has been a reaction from abroad, but I don’t think this is likely to have any particular effect on foreign ties,” Aso told reporters this morning.
Japan’s trade with China has failed to recover since the Chinese street protests, in which demonstrators attacked Japanese businesses and boycotted their products. Japanese exports to China fell in nine of 10 months through March. Exports dropped almost 16 percent in February and December.
Toyota, Japan’s largest automaker, this week said it doesn’t expect China sales to fully recover before autumn.
Yun’s cancellation could impede efforts by Japan and South Korea to coordinate their response to threats by North Korea, which has warned of attacks in the region as it expands its nuclear weapons program.
The shrine visits by Aso and other officials at the weekend were the first by members of Abe’s government since his Liberal Democratic Party regained power in December. While Abe didn’t visit the shrine, he sent an offering, and China filed a formal protest, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said yesterday.
“How Japan views history and deals with the Yasukuni shrine issue is an important benchmark for its Asian neighbors and the international community,” Hua told reporters in Beijing today. “No matter in what capacity or form Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni shrine, in essence it is an attempt to deny Japan’s history of aggression by its militarism.”
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