G7 showdown looms as China pressures Japan to leave South China Sea off the agenda

China is embroiled in overlapping territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea with Taiwan and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 10:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 4:39pm

China has pressed Japan not to broach Beijing’s disputes with regional neighbours in the South China Sea at the forthcoming Group of Seven (G7) summit in Japan, arguing that touching on the issue would hamper efforts to improve bilateral relations, diplomatic sources said on Saturday.

China pressed the point to Japan at a vice foreign ministerial gathering held in Tokyo in late February, the sources told Kyodo News.

But Japan rebuffed the Chinese demand, saying the international community cannot accept China’s building of artificial islands in the sea and their militarisation, they said.

China is embroiled in overlapping territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, including the Philippines.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to clearly state the importance of the rule of law in the G7 leaders’ declaration after securing unity over the South China Sea issue at the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting taking place in Hiroshima in April.

If Japan raises the issue at the summit, Chinese ire could cast a pall over budding signs of improvement in bilateral ties marred by a territorial spat surrounding islands in the East China Sea.

This year’s summit of the G7 states – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, host Japan and the US – is due to take place in the central Japan prefecture of Mie on May 26-27.

At a meeting with Shinsuke Sugiyama, Japan’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs, at the Japanese Foreign Ministry on February 29, Kong Xuanyou, an assistant foreign minister, voiced strong discontent with Tokyo’s open criticism of Beijing over the South China Sea issue, according to the sources.

Kong was quoted as telling Sugiyama that Japan, which is not involved in the rows, is acting like a concerned party. He also expressed doubt about whether Tokyo really wants to improve relations with Beijing.

Sino-Japanese ties sank to the lowest point in years following the Japanese government’s purchase in September 2012 of most of the Japanese-controlled Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea from a private Japanese owner. But they have gradually warmed since Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) held their first meeting in November 2014.

The Chinese diplomat went on to warn that how Japan approaches the issue at the G7 summit will be a litmus test of whether bilateral ties can be improved, the sources said.

Sugiyama replied it would be intolerable to try to change the status quo in the South China Sea with military might and it would serve the international community’s common interest to establish the rule of law in the sea.

Kong and Sugiyama also exchanged views on differing perceptions of history.

The Chinese diplomat accused Japan of not showing sincerity about history issues, citing Sugiyama’s remark at a UN panel in February that Tokyo has found no documents confirming that so-called comfort women were forcefully recruited by the military or government authorities during the second world war.