BEIJING – China said Friday that Japanese actions regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea threaten recent improvements in bilateral relations that soured over tensions linked to their row in the East China Sea.
The comments represent the sharpest tongue-lashing Beijing has delivered to Tokyo in months, following an effort by Japan to rally Group of Seven members against China’s heavy-duty land reclamation projects and muscle-flexing in the South China Sea.
“The Chinese side expresses severe concerns and indignation about the negative moves taken by the Japanese side,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news briefing in response to a question from state media.
The behavior “gravely harms the political and security trust between China and Japan and runs counter to the trend of improving ties,” he said.
Japan lobbied other G-7 members to include a passage about China’s behavior in the South China Sea in the group’s closing statement after its leadership meeting in Germany last week.
The statement, which did not mention China by name, expressed strong opposition to “the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large scale land reclamation.”
The move comes amid growing concerns in Japan, the United States and other countries over the pace and scope of China’s land reclamation and construction projects in the area, where its territorial claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China claims sovereignty over most of the area, which is home to vital shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds.
The reclamation work has transformed a handful of the sea’s disputed reefs into artificial islands capable of supporting a military presence, raising concerns about Beijing’s objectives in the area.
China says the project is intended to both serve its own defense needs and provide an “international public service” for maritime safety.
Japan, which has been tangled up in its own territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea for the past few years, has taken an increased interest in the work and moved to strengthen ties with the Philippines in response.
“Japan is not a party to the South China Sea issue,” Hong said, adding that Tokyo has been acting “quite strangely” and “hyping up” tensions in the region.
The fraught relations between China and Japan, long troubled by disagreements over territory and history, appear to be steadily improving since their current leaders finally met for the first time in Beijing last November.
Ties fell to their worst level in decades after the Japanese government bought three of the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese owner in 2012, to keep them out of the hands of then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a well-known nationalist. The islets are claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan.
The move spurred years of tense chases and standoffs between government ships and planes in the East China Sea.
But those issues, as well as problems related to lingering Chinese anger over Japan’s actions in the war, seem to have cooled in recent months amid a rise in contacts between the two governments.