Tokyo: The number of Chinese maritime incursions near Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea soared to a record this year, illustrating simmering tensions between Asia's two biggest economies.
Chinese government ships, including coast guard vessels, have entered what Japan considers its exclusive waters more than 1000 times this year, according to data from the Japan Coast Guard. That's on track for an 80 per cent increase over last year, and far more than any year since 2012, when China began making regular incursions around the islands.
The patrols – along with the recent detention and release of a Japanese academic accused by China of stealing state secrets – show how key disputes between the two neighbors remain unresolved even as they publicly tout warming ties.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected make his second trip to China in little more than a year later this month, and is hoping to host Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit next year.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses sailors on a tour of a Japanese Coast Guard ship.Credit:AAP
While it's unclear what's driving the uptick in maritime incursions, Beijing has long wanted Tokyo to formally acknowledge the dispute over the small, uninhabited islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. A decision by Abe's predecessor in 2012 to purchase some of the islands prompted a wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations and boycotts and led Beijing to step up maritime patrols.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday. China holds that the islands – located just north of Taiwan and surrounded by potential natural gas deposits – are part of its historical territory that should have been returned with the rest of Japan's colonial possessions after World War II.
Japan sent Shigeru Kitamura, the head of its national security council, to China this week for what Chinese state media said was a "high-level political dialogue to exchange views on bilateral ties and important issues."
Kitamura was in Beijing Friday for meetings with Vice President Wang Qishan and Yang Jiechi, Xi's top foreign policy adviser, a Japanese government official said.
Abe has spent much of his seven-year tenure trying to repair ties with China while maintaining Japan's postwar alliance with the US That effort has been tested in recent months by Japanese officials' defense of peaceful protests in Hong Kong and Tokyo's move to effectively exclude Huawei Technologies from government contracts.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, has spent much of his time as leader trying to repair his country’s relationship with China. He’s pictured here with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 meeting in Osaka earlier this year. Credit:Reuters
At least 14 Japanese citizens have been detained in China since 2015, according to Japan's foreign ministry. Five have since been released while another nine remain in custody under accusations of violating national security laws.
The increased maritime patrols will make Abe's balancing act more difficult later this month when he's expected to visit China for a three-way summit with Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Abe may also be meeting Xi during the visit, Kyodo News of Japan reported Friday.
Fisheries cooperatives in Okinawa prefecture, where the islands are located, have complained about being forced away from waters due to Chinese patrols while right wing politicians have encouraged Abe to take a hard line with China in the territorial dispute.
"China is engaging in unilateral and coercive attempts to change the status quo based on its own assertions incompatible with the existing international order, and has been expanding and intensifying its military activities in maritime and aerial domains," Japan's defense ministry said in annual policy paper published in September.
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