BEIJING – Chinese coast guard vessels entered waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on Saturday, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe angered Beijing by sending a ritual offering to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, along with Class-A war criminals.
The uninhabited islands, which China claims as Diaoyu, have inflamed passions in the world’s second- and third-biggest economies. The isles lie just off Taiwan, which claims them as Tiaoyutai.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have been further aggravated by the respects that Japanese politicians regularly pay at Yasukuni, which is widely viewed in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s war of aggression.
In a terse statement on its website, China’s State Oceanic Administration said three coast guard vessels patrolled “Chinese territorial waters” near the islands on Saturday. No other details were given.
The tit-for-tat patrols by vessels and aircraft from both countries have raised fears of a potential military clash.
China expressed “serious concern” on Friday after Abe sent another small “masakaki” tree offering to Yasukuni for its autumn festival. South Korea also deplored the move, reiterating that the shrine is “the symbol of glorification of Japan’s colonization and invasive war.”
Regardless, three of Abe’s newest members visited the shrine on Saturday, some officially. The third wouldn’t comment on the nature of the visit.
The Chinese government has strongly demanded that Japan’s prime ministers, foreign ministers and chief Cabinet secretaries never visit Yasukuni. Its response to visits by other ministers has been relatively weaker.
Officials in Tokyo have pointed out that Beijing recently resumed exchanges on various channels with Japan, including through corporate leaders, in an apparent sign of China’s willingness to improve bilateral ties.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wished to “build a friendly relationship” in a policy speech to the Diet on Sept. 29.
Often described as a hawk, Abe has generally avoided using the phrase “friendly relationship” in regard to China, saying instead that the two countries should have a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.”
Abe outraged Beijing and Seoul by visiting Yasukuni in person in 2013. He said he went not to glorify the war, but to honor those who fought and died for their country.
But he has stayed away from the shrine since then, instead sending offerings on key dates, seeking to tread a fine line between his conservative convictions and the diplomatic imperative to improve ties with China.
Expectations are growing that Abe will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping for ice-breaking talks during the Nov. 10 to 11 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Beijing.