China and Japan traded accusations on Thursday after a Chinese navy vessel was detected in waters near disputed islands in the East China Sea, adding fresh uncertainty as the two sides try to improve bilateral ties.
The development came amid news that Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono may visit China at the end of this month for talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
Japan’s vice foreign minister Shinsuke Sugiyama summoned Chinese ambassador Cheng Yonghua to voice Tokyo’s concerns over Beijing’s military deployment in the disputed waters.
The Chinese vessel, identified as a Jiangkai 2-class frigate, was spotted on Thursday just beyond Japanese waters near the contested islands that are known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, Japan’s defence ministry said.
A foreign submarine was also detected in the area on Wednesday, in the so-called contiguous zone near Miyako Island, southeast of the Senkakus, the ministry said, without identifying the nation involved.
The submarine was seen again on Thursday along with the Chinese frigate, and both had left the area by Thursday afternoon, according to the ministry.
Relations between China and Japan have long been tense because of historical issues and their territorial disputes over the tiny, uninhabited archipelago – which lies between Taiwan and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa – that is controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.
But China says it is “indisputable” that its navy vessels have every right to operate in what it sees as its territorial waters.
“The measures by the Japanese side will not change the established fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China, nor will it change China’s resolution to safeguard its territory in the Diaoyu Islands,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said during a regular press briefing on Thursday.
A spokesman for China’s defence ministry said the frigate had been sent out to monitor the movement of vessels operated by the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.
Relations between China and Japan have shown signs of improvement in recent months after their leaders both gained fresh mandates and domestic support at the end of last year.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected after winning a commanding majority for his party in parliamentary elections in October, while Chinese President Xi Jinping secured another term in power after a twice-a-decade party congress the same month.
Abe has shown his goodwill by indicating Japan’s readiness to join China’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative” and sent Yoshihisa Inoue, secretary general of ruling coalition partner Komeito, to head a delegation to a major summit on the trade and infrastructure plan in Beijing in May.
Japan’s top diplomat Kono is making arrangements to visit China from January 27 to 28, according to a Kyodo report. He will hold talks with Wang to set a date for a delayed trilateral summit with China and South Korea, which Tokyo is considering hosting in April, and to exchange views on improving bilateral ties.
But Chinese analysts said Beijing was wary about moving towards rapprochement with Tokyo.
“China remains deeply suspicious of Abe’s intentions and will not show too much enthusiasm for a thawing in ties,” said Hu Lingyuan, director of the Centre for Japanese Studies at Fudan University.
Hu added that a key concern for Beijing was Abe’s long-standing bid to amend his country’s pacifist constitution to rearm Japan.
Lian Degui, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations at the Shanghai International Studies University, said territorial disputes in the East China Sea and Japan’s vocal stance on maritime issues including the South China Sea were also major obstacles to improving ties.
Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse