China-Japan relations: defence chiefs discuss East China Sea tensions

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The defence ministers of China and Japan discussed tensions in the disputed East China Sea on Monday.

The phone call was the first discussion between Chinese Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe and his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi since Kishi took office in September.

Kyodo News reported that Kishi expressed concerns to Wei over the Chinese ships “repeatedly sailing close to and entering the waters” around the Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyus.

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The call also covered the creation of an emergency hotline to better manage potential crises between the two countries, especially over the islands, which are claimed by both countries.

Wei congratulated Kishi on his appointment and called for more high-level defence exchanges, cooperation and multilateral coordination, and for the faster progress on the communication mechanism, according to the Chinese defense ministry.

“On the issues of the East China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands, China‘s determination to defend its territorial sovereignty and maritime interests is unshakeable,” Wei was quoted as saying.

“We should look at the bigger picture and long term to increase consultation and properly handle differences to make the East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.”

The islands are a major stumbling block in the bilateral relationship, with coastguard vessels from both countries frequently patrolling and confronting each other in the waters near the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.

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The two defence ministries have long discussed setting up a communications mechanism to prevent air and maritime encounters in the area from escalating.

The main parts of the mechanism were launched in 2018, but there is still no hotline.

During a trip to Japan last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed starting a “security dialogue” between vice-ministers.

Wang also suggested that to help ease tensions, both countries should keep their fishing boats away from the islands and allow only official vessels to sail near the “sensitive waters”, but Japan said this would be “unacceptable”.

The Diaoyu Islands cover just 7 sq km (2.7 square miles) and were handed over to Japanese administration by the United States in 1972. In 2012 the Japanese government “bought” these islets from a private owner, triggering massive protests in China and sending ties between the two countries into a tailspin.

China then ramped up efforts to assert control by sending official vessels to patrol the waters – sometimes nearly on a daily basis. But the ships were always from the coastguard rather than the navy, keeping the confrontation technically civilian.

The islands are included in the joint defence treaty between the US and Japan, meaning that the US could come to Japan’s aid in a conflict with China.

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Liu Jiangyong, a Japan specialist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the Diaoyu dispute was the biggest problem between the two countries.

“China has always suggested that both sides should put aside the disputes in favour of cooperation, and manage the differences,” Liu said.

On Sunday, China marked the anniversary of the 1937 massacre in Nanking – now known as Nanjing – by the Japanese army. The anniversary has been a national day of commemoration since 2014.

Also on the weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined the importance of national security, including “defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

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