Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Japan of “double dealing,” as tensions linger between Asia’s two biggest economies over disputed islands and Japanese officials join international criticism of China’s efforts to build artificial islands in disputed waters.
Wang’s comments to reporters in Beijing on Tuesday come weeks before a nuclear summit in Washington, where Japan had hoped to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping. While Abe succeeded in breaking a summit hiatus by sitting down with Xi in November 2014 and April 2015, there has been no such meeting in almost a year.
Territorial disputes and Japan’s wartime legacy have been at the center of strained relations, which have marginally improved since a low in 2012 when the Japanese government bought three of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from a private owner.
The islands are also claimed by China.
Ships and planes from both sides continue to tail one another around the uninhabited islets. In the South China Sea, Japan’s vocal support for U.S. challenges to China’s claims to much of the waterway have led to new tensions in recent months.
“On one hand the Japanese government leaders say nice things about wanting to improve relations, on the other they are making trouble for China at every turn,” Wang said at a news conference in Beijing during the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress. “This is what I would call a typical case of double dealing.”
In the past, diplomatic friction has hurt commerce between the two nations — China is Japan’s biggest trading partner and Japan is China’s second-largest after the U.S.
While there were signs the relationship was improving, “there is little ground for optimism,” Wang said, adding that Japanese leaders have “adopted the wrong approach to history.”
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea in a contest with five Asian nations. Over the past two years it has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land on seven features in the Spratly Islands, known as Nansha in Chinese, and has added airstrips, lighthouses, radar systems and port facilities to better project influence over the waters.
Wang defended his country’s island building in the South China Sea, claiming that other countries are responsible for the militarization of the area.
“In building defense facilities on our own islands and reefs, China is actually exercising the right to self-preservation and self-defense under international law,” Wang said. “China was not the first country to have deployed weapons in the Nansha islands, we are not the country that has deployed the most weapons and we are not the country that conducts the most frequent military activities.”
Japan has repeatedly criticized Chinese actions in the area. In January, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan had “serious concerns” about test flights on a runway built on an artificial island and urged China to restrain itself.
Japan has also bolstered security ties with Southeast Asian countries whose territorial claims overlap with those of China — last month sealing an agreement on defense equipment cooperation with the Philippines, which a report in the Nikkei newspaper said could allow it to lend surveillance aircraft to the country’s military. Japan has already promised the Philippines 10 coast guard vessels.
The U.S., India and Japan will hold joint naval exercises later this year in waters north of the Philippines. Japan is also planning to send a submarine on a visit to Subic Island in the Philippines this month, media reports said over the weekend.
Japan has protested to China about its use of armed former naval vessels repainted white, after the ships joined coast guard vessels in waters Japan sees as its own near the disputed Senkakus.
Wang also reiterated that China does not see sanctions as a solution to the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear arms program and called for disarmament talks in parallel with negotiations on a final peace agreement for the Korean War that ended in 1953 with a truce. China, which heads the six-party disarmament talks that broke off in 2009, would be open to other formats for new negotiations involving fewer countries, he said.
“Replacing the armistice is a reasonable concern” of North Korea, Wang said. “The two should be negotiated in parallel, implemented in steps and resolved with reference to each other. This would be an equitable, reasonable and workable solution.”
Asked about criticism of China by candidates running for the U.S. presidency, Wang said there are always those in the U.S. suspicious of China.
“There are always some people in the United States who have strategic suspicions of China,” he said. “They’re worried that China will one day supersede the United States. I want to emphasize once again that China is not the United States and that China cannot and will not become another United States. We have no intention to displace anybody or dominate anybody.”