Chinese ships still circling Senkakus but door to dialogue open, Abe says - ( J44P44NN )

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chinese government vessels are still steaming into territorial waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, but the door to dialogue with Beijing is always open, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The conflicting claims by Asia’s two largest powers to the remote islets, known as Diaoyu by China, have badly strained bilateral relations. Beijing says it, too, is ready to talk, but only if Tokyo formally acknowledges a territorial dispute exists.

On Friday, Abe said Japan will make no concession on sovereignty over the Senkakus. But he said his administration does not intend to escalate the issue, and emphasized the importance of ties between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.

“The door to dialogue is always open, and I really hope that the Chinese side will take a similar attitude and have the same mindset,” Abe told a news conference in New York after attending the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

The standoff over the uninhabited chain intensified in September last year after Japan bought three of the five main islets from their private owner, a businessman from Saitama Prefecture.

The Japanese government portrayed the purchase as an attempt to block a proposal by Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s ultranationalist then-governor, to buy and develop the three islets. However, Japan’s move deeply angered China, which says the islets have been part of its territory since ancient times.

That sparked an acrimonious exchange between Chinese and Japanese officials at last year’s U.N. General Assembly, but the tone was mild this time round, with only brief and indirect allusions to territorial disputes.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the world body Friday that Beijing wants to resolve its territorial and maritime disputes through negotiations with the “countries directly involved.” China also has conflicting claims with a host of Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.

“Those disputes that cannot be resolved now can be shelved for future resolution. This is our consistent position and practice,” Wang said. “On the other hand, we will, under whatever circumstances, firmly safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Abe did not mention China in his address to the General Assembly on Thursday, but said “changes to the maritime order through use of force or coercion cannot be condoned.”

Also Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to move swiftly to reach a code of conduct for the South China Sea in order to address disputes “without threats, without coercion and without use of force.”

Beijing has been reticent to negotiate with a regional bloc, though consultations with ASEAN on a code were held in China recently after years of delay.

Speaking at the U.N. gathering Thursday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said there is broad consensus on the goals for a legally binding code, but he declined to set a deadline for completing it. He said nations are discussing preliminary steps to build confidence, such as setting up communications hot lines to cope with security incidents.

China claims jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea, a critical conduit for world trade that is potentially rich in oil and gas. Beijing’s assertive behavior at sea in recent years has irked its neighbors. Other claimants include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Without specifying any country, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dun spoke in stark terms Friday about the territorial disputes in the South and East China seas, warning the General Assembly that “just one single incident or ill-conceived act could trigger conflict, even war.”

Over the past year, the Japan Coast Guard says there have been scores of intrusions by Chinese vessels into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus.

“The incursion by Chinese government vessels in our territorial waters is continuing, much to our regret,” Abe said Friday. “We have been dealing with this issue calmly and resolutely, and we shall continue to do so.”

The U.S. is concerned about the standoff as well. As a security treaty ally of Japan, it could be dragged in if a conflict breaks out.