Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday that Japan and China are “inseparable” and urged Beijing to come to the table for “vital” summit talks as he sought to move on from much-criticised comparisons he drew with the first world war.
Abe told lawmakers he would not budge on the sovereignty of the Tokyo-administered islands that Beijing claims, but insisted the disagreement should not prevent a meeting between two closely-intertwined countries.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to realise summit meetings with China. But my door for dialogue is always open,” he told the opening of a parliamentary session.
“Instead of refusing to hold dialogue unless issues become resolved, we should hold talks because we have issues.”
“Japan and China are inseparable. I will continue to make efforts to improve relations, while calling [on China] to return to the principles of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.”
His comments came after he wrote a Lunar New Year message for Chinese language magazines published in Japan, in which he wrote it was “vital that dialogues are conducted between the two countries at variety of levels, including at the summit level”.
Earlier Abe’s chief spokesman faced questions from journalists for the second day running about a parallel the premier had drawn at the World Economic Forum in Davos between present-day Asia and Europe on the eve of the first world war.
Abe was quoted by multiple media as saying he saw a “similar situation” between current Japan-China relations and ties between Germany and Britain in 1914.
“We would like to use our diplomatic channels to explain the prime minister’s true intention,” Yoshihide Suga told a regular briefing on Friday.
The Japanese-language transcript of Abe’s remarks did not contain the words “similar situation”, although Abe made a passing reference to the ties between Germany and Britain a century ago, according to Suga.
Britain's Financial Times said in an editorial on Friday that Abe may have used the example in an attempt to stress the seriousness of the current situation, where the region’s two largest economies are in diplomatic conflict over the islands and differing takes on history.
“But for Japan’s prime minister to allow any comparison with 1914 in Europe is chilling and inflammatory,” the editorial said.
Suga insisted that the remarks had been wrongly interpreted.
“We will explain to those media so that what he truly meant to say will be conveyed,” he told reporters, adding Abe meant to stress his commitment to avoiding a path that would lead to war.
He said Tokyo has ordered its embassies to “explain” to media what was said in Davos.
In his keynote speech at the gathering in Switzerland delivered hours later, Abe called on the world community to rein in military spending and obey international maritime rules, in a speech widely seen as a broadside at China.
Ties between the two countries have steadily deteriorated over the last 18 months as the long-rumbling row over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, has worsened.
China says the islands were snatched by an empire-building Japan at the close of the 19th century, and regularly sends its coastguard ships to their waters.
Maritime stand-offs have become routine and jet fighters have been dispatched by both sides, leading some observers to warn of the danger of a clash.
Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, further angered China and irritated South Korea, which say the inclusion of 14 of the men responsible for the invasions and occupations of last century is an insult to the millions whose deaths they caused.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang “urged Abe to take a correct attitude, stop provocation, admit his mistakes and change his track,” Xinhua news agency reported early on Saturday.
“The Japanese leader does not reflect on Japan’s aggression history and attempts to turn back the wheel of history. It is the Japanese leader who has shut down the door for dialogue with the Chinese side, with his own acts,” said Qin as cited by the agency.
Xinhua also said he voiced “strong dissatisfaction” over Abe’s latest remarks on the disputed islands.
Regional tensions are proving a headache for the United States, which is wary of being drawn into any conflict that might erupt between treaty ally Japan and China, one of its biggest trading partners.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was in Tokyo on Friday after stops in Seoul and Beijing, as part of efforts to soothe relations.
Washington, which was taken by surprise by Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni, is seeking assurances that he will not repeat it, the Wall Street Journal reported, without naming its sources.