Defense officials from Japan and China will meet today in Beijing, signaling Asia’s two biggest economies are trying to soothe rising tensions over East China Sea islands claimed by both.
The officials are scheduled to meet this evening, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters in Tokyo. The two sides will discuss ways to improve contacts over territorial issues and exchange opinions on “the maritime communication mechanism,” he said.
“We particularly want to exchange opinions at a working level on the marine communication mechanism and the regional situation,” Onodera said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed this week to protect the islands by force if necessary as marine patrols from both sides circled each other. Visits by lawmakers to a Tokyo shrine viewed as a symbol of wartime aggression have compounded the strain, further threatening ties that may be at their lowest level since bilateral relations were established in 1972.
The islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, lie in Japanese administered waters rich in fish, oil and natural gas. The Japanese government purchased them in September, sparking protests across China and harming a $340 billion trade relationship that has yet to recover for companies such as
“The Diaoyu Islands problem is an issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing today. “Of course it constitutes a core interest.”
China uses the “core interest” label for issues it considers non-negotiable, such as its sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet. Hua said she had no information about today’s defense talks.
“It’s a tougher way of them sending a signal to the international community that they are not going to relent,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the Beijing-based North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.
Three Chinese ships entered Japanese-administered waters near the islands today, Kyodo News reported, citing Japan’s Coast Guard. China’s official Xinhua News Agency also reported Chinese ships were in the area.
Planes and vessels from both countries have tailed one another for months, prompting concern from U.S. officials that the feud will escalate. Japan accused China of using weapons-targeting radar in January on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter in the waters, something the Chinese government denied.
Almost 170 legislators visited Yasukuni Shrine on April 23, two days after Finance Minister Taro Aso paid his respects there as part of a spring festival, causing China and South Korea to file protests. The shrine memorializes Japan’s war dead, including World War II leaders convicted of war crimes, and is viewed in Asia as a symbol of atrocities during Japan’s occupation of the region in the first half of the 20th century.
Bilateral trade has failed to recover since Chinese demonstrators attacked Japanese businesses and boycotted their products. Japanese exports to China fell in nine of 10 months through March, and Toyota, Japan’s largest automaker, this week said it doesn’t expect China sales to fully recover before autumn.