The head of China’s delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue has denied that Beijing unilaterally changed the status quo in the East China Sea, rebutting a claim in Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s speech at the annual defence summit in Singapore. Lieutenant General He Lei of the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force said on Friday that Japan – not China, as Kishida implied – was the first to change the status quo in the waters in 2012 by unilaterally nationalising a chain of disputed, uninhabited islands that China calls the Diaoyus and Japan claims as the Senkakus. Despite the prime minister’s thinly veiled criticisms of China’s actions in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait, the former deputy head of China’s Academy of Military Sciences said Kishida’s “fairly complete and relatively mild” speech struck a much softer tone than remarks the Japanese leader has given for a domestic audience. He’s assessment reflected the Chinese delegate’s satisfaction with Kishida’s keynote speech overall, delivered at the high-profile three-day conference to which senior defence officials from dozens of countries were invited. The annual summit is taking place amid strained military ties between China and Japan over a range of thorny issues including disputed territories and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue , or Quad, of which Japan is a member alongside Australia , India and the United States . “The purchase [of the Diaoyu islands] has changed the mutual understanding to put aside disputes reached by Chinese leaders,” He explained, referring to an arrangement reached in the 1970s. “China doesn’t accept the accusation that it’s using its capabilities and force to change the status quo in the area.” Nationalising the disputed islands by transferring control away from private owners “severely violated Chinese territorial sovereignty” in the East China Sea, He said. In his speech, Kishida also criticised what he described as many actions across the Taiwan Strait that “did not respect diversity, free will and human rights”. The prime minister did not mention China by name. US-China fireworks, Kishida speech: key facts on the Shangri-La Dialogue “Unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in violation of international law are continuing,” Kishida said. “Japan is taking a firm stand against such attempts. Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which is located between these two seas, is also of extreme importance.” The lieutenant general said Japan would need to “suffer sooner or later” for its “meddling” in Taiwan affairs. Kishida further said international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea , was being violated in the South China Sea. China’s extensive “nine-dash line” claim in the sea was invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016. Beijing refused to recognise the outcome despite being bound by the decision , having ratified the UN treaty on sea activities. To date, artificial islands in the disputed waters have become home to Chinese-built military facilities, including airports, radar and missile systems. The lieutenant general repeated China’s position that the arbitration was unlawful. He did not directly comment on Kishida’s call for nuclear states to disclose their nuclear capabilities in greater detail, stating he did not know which countries the Japanese leader was alluding to. But in a change of tone, Kishida ended his speech by saying Japan sought “constructive and stable” ties with China despite the complex issues between the two nations. Japan, China ‘must think long term to improve ties’ as Taiwan tensions grow “We need to promote dialogue and communication to build up trust between us, step by step,” Kishida said in response to a question from He. On Sunday, Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi is slated to meet his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Kyodo News Agency reported, citing a government source. Kishi and Wei most recently spoke via videoconference in December. The last time defence ministers from China and Japan met in person was 2019.