China asks Japan not to get involved in South China Sea row

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asem Summit in Ulan Bator on Friday. Photo: Kyodo

China called on Japan not to get involved in the South China Sea disputes in a regional summit on Friday, where Beijing is also attempting to get support for its stance towards the disputes after a ruling by an international court.

The exchanges between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came amid worries over tensions in the disputed waters after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled against Beijing.

Li told Abe on the sideline of the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) of about 50 nations in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, that Tokyo should "stop hyping up and interfering in the South China Sea issue", Xinhua reported.

"Japan is not a state directly involved in the South China Sea issue, and thus should exercise caution in its own words and deeds, and stop hyping up and interfering", Li said, according to Xinhua.

Li said that the improvement of bilateral ties between the two nations had been slow because of "complicated disturbances", and called on both to be more responsible in managing their relations.

He added that the two nations should maintain dialogue and step up economic cooperation.

China and Japan have had bitter disputes over sovereignty of the East China Sea, but Japan is not a claimant state of the South China Sea.

Abe told Li that a rule-based international order must be respected, Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted a senior Japanese official as saying.

The international tribunal ruled on Tuesday that China has no historic claims over the waters of the South China Sea and that it had violated Philippines sovereign rights with its actions.

Beijing made angry responses to the ruling, saying that China was determined to protect its territorial integrity and the disputes should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with the countries directly involved.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have rival claims.

Diplomatic coup

For Abe, it could also mean that what seemed like a diplomatic coup 18 months ago has slipped through his fingers. Then, the two countries issued a statement acknowledging differences of opinion over ownership of the East China Sea islands before a summit between Abe and President Xi Jinping.

After the Hague tribunal issued its ruling on the South China Sea on Tuesday, Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida angered China by releasing a statement underscoring the tribunal's verdict as "final and legally binding" on the parties to the dispute.

"Japan strongly expects that the parties' compliance with this award will eventually lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea," Kishida said, adding that Japan has "consistently advocated the importance of the rule of law and the use of peaceful means, not the use of force or coercion" in settling maritime disputes.

While China's main focus may be on its loss of face in The Hague, sparring over the disputed islands in the East China Sea has also intensified, with China alleging that two Japanese fighter aircraft had "provoked" Chinese fighters in June as they patrolled China's self-declared air defense identification zone -- an allegation Japan has denied.

Also in June, a Chinese warship was spotted in the contiguous zone outside Japanese-administered waters around the disputed islands. While Chinese coastguard ships frequently sail into what Japan sees as its territorial waters, no military vessel had previously been seen there.

One reason the improvement in ties didn't take root is that the Abe administration doesn't have anyone who can communicate effectively with the Xi administration, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. As a result, no one has been able to fathom the reasons for its behavior, he said, adding that Japan's new ambassador to Beijing would also need time to develop relations.

The next opportunity for a top-level meeting will likely be the Group of 20 talks to be hosted by China in September. Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at The Tokyo Foundation think tank and a former military attache in Beijing, said the meeting would be an important not only for bilateral ties between China and Japan.

"I think China will use this as a platform to express its dissatisfaction with what it sees as obstruction of its development by the West and Japan," Ohara said. "China is saying it won't play by the West's rules," he added. "To get along with China in international society, we have to play the same game as them. That means we have to have the same rules and we need to start working those out as soon as possible."

Push for support

Beijing has been strengthening its diplomatic push for support from non-claimant states over the past months.

China's Foreign Ministry on Friday said that Beijing's position on the case had the support of Laos, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional bloc long dogged by discord over how to deal with China's maritime assertiveness.

In his talks with Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on the sideline of the Asem on Thursday, Li expounded on China's principles and stance on the arbitration case, Xinhua reported.

"Thongloun said that Laos supports China's position, and is willing to work with China to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region," the report said.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen said that China would give his government nearly US$600 million in aid to support the country's election infrastructure, education and health. He said in a statement that the aid was finalized after he met with Li on the sideline of the regional meeting.

"At my request, our Chinese friends have agreed to provide funds for supporting the election process, health care, education and clean water," he said.
China is a key ally and economic partner of Cambodia through huge aid and investments.

Xinhua quoted Hun Sen as saying in his talks with Li that Cambodia was willing to work with all parties to keep up friendly cooperation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China.

'War not an option'

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ended his unusual silence at a private function late on Thursday and said that he wanted dialogue with China and was considering sending former President Fidel Ramos to Beijing to get the ball rolling.

"War is not an option," he said. "So, what is the other side? - Peaceful talk."

Immediately after the ruling, the normally brash and outspoken Duterte privately told his ministers to be magnanimous and not to pique Beijing, according to one minister.

But the cautious tone appears to be changing in the Philippines, where there are signs of public disgruntlement with the subdued government response to a decision that most of the country was celebrating.

The US, a key Philippines' ally, is urging Asian nations not to move aggressively to capitalize on the court ruling, according to US administration officials.

The chief of its naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, will discuss the South China Sea among other issues when he meets China's navy commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, from Sunday on a three-day trip to "improve mutual understanding", according to a US Navy statement.

Chinese state media on Friday reported again that China aims to launch a series of offshore nuclear power platforms to promote development in the South China Sea. Experts said that little progress had been made on the plan, which would likely stoke further tensions.


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