Re-affirming his hawkish stance on China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday that Japan will not negotiate with Beijing over a contested cluster of uninhabited islands, and that China was “wrong” for allowing violent protests over the territorial dispute.
The comments come as high-level US officials plan visits to both Japan and South Korea next week to urge the neighbours to mend ties over a separate territorial spat. Abe did not comment on the South Korean dispute in his 15-minute press conference but insisted that Japan would give up nothing in the dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea.
A decision by Tokyo to buy the islands – called Senkaku in Japanese and Daioyu in Chinese - from their private Japanese owners in September set off protests in China that damaged numerous Japanese-owned factories and stores around the country. The islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Asked how he could maintain his staunch stance on the territorial issue while protecting Japan’s substantial business interests in China, Abe blamed China for any deterioration in business ties.
“It was wrong for China, as a country responsible to the international community, to achieve a political goal by allowing damages to Japanese-affiliated companies and Japanese nationals that have made contributions to Chinese economy,” Abe said.
“This will not only undermine the bilateral relationship, but it will also negatively affect China’s economy and society,” he said.
Abe, who took office late last month declaring economic growth to be his top priority, made the comments during a news conference where he announced more than US$224 billion in new stimulus.
The aim is to boost growth by 2 per cent and create 600,000 jobs, he said. The tensions with China are likely to complicate that task.
The top US diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, said on Thursday the US will urge “care and caution” in the maritime dispute over the East China Sea islands.
Senior officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House will travel to South Korea and Japan next week, after recent elections in both countries. The two Northeast Asian democracies have fallen out over a territorial dispute and Japan’s attitude toward its colonial past, though Abe’s government appears eager to seek rapprochement.
Tensions with Beijing, however, remain volatile, with frequent reports of incursions by Chinese vessels and aircraft into areas near the disputed islands.
Abe’s spending package includes plans a request to raise military spending for the first time in a decade - an increase partly aimed at beefing up monitoring and defences around the disputed islands.
Attacks on Japanese businesses and boycotts of some Japanese products in China have hurt Japan’s exporters and added to uncertainties over their extensive investments in mainland China.
Earlier this week, Toyota Motors said its sales in China fell 4.9 per cent last year to 840,500 vehicles, the first annual decline since at least 2001. Nissan Motor Co.’s sales dropped 5.3 per cent to 1,181,500 vehicles, the first decline since it set up a joint venture with a local partner in 2003.
Signaling Tokyo’s determination to expand its trade and investment with other Asia-Pacific nations, Abe dispatched his foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, on visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia this week.
Next week, Abe plans to visit Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand to strengthen ties already growing as Japanese manufacturers boost investments and marketing in the region.
“These three countries are engines for growth of the world economy,” Yoshihide Suga, the chief government spokesman, said on Thursday. He deflected suggestions that Tokyo was seeking to counterbalance China.
“I don’t view respecting relations with the rest of Asia as a countermeasure against China,” he said.