Are Senkakus a ‘core interest’ for China?

Senior Beijing official's remark downplayed by Tokyo, analysts

JIJI

China has indicated that it views the disputed Senkaku Islands as one of its “core (territorial) interests,” according to a senior Diet lawmaker who met with a high-ranking Chinese official, though it remains unclear if he was expressing Beijing’s official stance.

China uses the diplomatic phrase to refer to key territory it plans to hold onto or ultimately regain, including the Tibet Autonomous Region, flash point islands in the South China Sea, the restive Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and even Taiwan.

According to Satsuki Eda, a senior adviser to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Wang Jiarui, head of the Communist Party’s International Department, described the Japanese-controlled islets as a core interest during face-to-face talks in Beijing on Tuesday.

“To China, both the Diaoyu and the Uighur area are core interests,” Eda, a former Upper House president, quoted Wang as saying during the meeting. Beijing refers to the uninhabited but potentially resource-rich islets in the East China Sea as the Diaoyu.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura downplayed Wang’s remarks Wednesday, telling a news conference that the government believes he was expressing a personal — rather than China’s official — view.

Experts in Japan also said it is unclear to what extent China considers the isles as a core interest, despite Wang’s comments.

At the meeting, Wang also warned Eda that China strongly opposes Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase three of the five Senkaku islets from a private individual in Saitama Prefecture to cement Japan’s hold on them — a project the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is currently soliciting donations for.

But Eda added that Wang agreed the long-standing sovereignty row and a more recent source of tension, Japan’s decision to host a meeting of the World Uyghur Congress in Tokyo last week, should not be allowed to develop into major bilateral disputes.

Eda also said that while both he and Wang acknowledged that a number of issues continue to strain bilateral ties, maintaining friendly relations is the priority.

Still, relations between Tokyo and Beijing have been further strained by Ishihara’s proposal to buy three of the islets and the Uighur gathering.

On May 14, Chinese President Hu Jintao refused to hold a bilateral meeting with Noda, while Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, has postponed a visit to Japan that was slated to start Thursday.

The barren outcroppings, which are also claimed by Taiwan, have long been a source of bilateral tension and sent ties plunging after a Chinese trawler had a run-in with Japan Coast Guard vessels trying to shoo it away from the Senkakus in surrounding waters in September 2010.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao raised the Senkaku issue and the Uighur meeting during talks in Beijing with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on May 13, cautioning that Japan should respect China’s core interests.

But Foreign Ministry sources sought to play down the row following their meeting, noting the Chinese leader did not directly refer to the Senkakus as one of China’s core interests and he appeared more vexed over the Uighur meeting being held in Tokyo.