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China, Japan Trade Words Over Disputed Islands

  • Stephanie Ho

East China Sea

East China Sea

China's foreign ministry is calling for Japan to withdraw its fishing boats from disputed waters in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Japanese officials are downplaying the issue, and say they are hopeful the two sides can soon hold further discussions on joint cooperation on gas fields in the area.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying Beijing is demanding Japan immediately withdraw fishing boats from the waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The islands are referred to as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. The Chinese statement repeated claims the islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times, and that Beijing has what it described as “incontrovertible sovereignty” over them.

The comments came as Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto was winding up a two-day visit to China. A Japanese foreign ministry spokesman, Hidenobu Sobashima, said the two officials discussed the disputed territory, but in general terms.

“Foreign Minister Matsumoto said Senkaku Islands is historically, and also in terms of international law, is an integral part of Japan, and there is no territorial issue to be resolved," he said. "This is the Japanese position. And Chinese Foreign Minister mentioned the Chinese position.”

Despite the apparently entrenched positions on sovereignty, the Japanese spokesman indicated he is optimistic the two sides can move forward on discussing legally-binding agreements on joint exploration of gas fields in the area. He said Japanese and Chinese leaders discussed this at a summit meeting in Tokyo in May.

“Compared with last year, perhaps this year, particularly after the earthquake and after the summit, the atmosphere is more promising than a little earlier,” said Sobashima.

Relations between the two countries sank to a low point last year after a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel near the islands in September.

Recent polls in both countries have found high levels of mutual public distrust. Peking University International Studies Associate Professor Dong Wang says he believes such negative public opinion only exacerbates the problems in the relationship.

“I think that the management of China-Japan relations will become increasingly more challenging and probably more difficult," he said. "But I think the top leaders from both countries also, in the final analysis, they also understand that China-Japan antagonism does not serve either party.”

Instead, he says, better and more cooperative Sino-Japanese relations will benefit both countries.