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When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi calmly but staunchly asserted Tuesday night that Japan-administered islands in the East China Sea belong to China, a slight smirk appeared on the face of his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi.

As the interpreter subsequently read Wang’s remarks aloud in Japanese, Motegi’s expression changed little but his darting eyes belied a certain unease. Some observers speculated that he had frozen, and the faint smile was simply a defense mechanism.

The contrast was sharp between Wang, who maintained a poker face throughout, and Motegi, who appeared to have been caught off guard by the Chinese envoy’s spontaneous assertion about the Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in Chinese.

The awkward moment at the joint news conference in Tokyo, which followed the two foreign ministers’ first in-person meeting since the pandemic erupted, reflects the difficult reality that the rift between two Asian powerhouses runs deep on national security issues despite their attempt to sugarcoat the hourlong meeting by airing a laundry list of bilateral accomplishments.

“The Chinese position is crystal clear: We’ll continue to absolutely defend our sovereignty,” Wang said after alleging that some Japanese fishing boats “that are unaware of the facts” have entered the territorial waters near the disputed islets, leaving China “no choice but to take a necessary response.”

“It’s important to avoid taking actions that will complicate the matter in sensitive territorial waters. We’d like to make the East Sea the one defined by peace and amicability and manage it cooperatively through our mutual endeavors,” he continued, using the Chinese expression for the East China Sea. “I think that will match with both countries’ basic mutual interests.”

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi listens during a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. Wang Yi's visit to Japan comes amid China's expressions of anger over regional cooperation seen as pushing back against Beijing's expansionism in Asia. | REUTERS
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi listens during a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. Wang Yi’s visit to Japan comes amid China’s expressions of anger over regional cooperation seen as pushing back against Beijing’s expansionism in Asia. | REUTERS

If his words were not sufficient, China backed them up Wednesday: The Japan Coast Guard confirmed two Chinese government vessels had entered the contiguous waters near the Senkakus, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said.

Wednesday’s occurrence — carried out during Wang’s visit — brings up the total number of days that Chinese ships have sailed in the area to 306 days so far this year, with the top government spokesman denouncing the streak as “extremely serious.”

But Wang appeared to give no heed to the almost daily occurrences and carried on with his schedule, even meeting with Kato on Wednesday morning. He paid a visit to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga later in the evening before departing Japan.

After meeting with Suga, Wang told reporters that they had agreed to further improve the bilateral relationship in a way that is “appropriate for a new era” with the new Japanese administration.

Mentioning the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Games scheduled for next year, as well as the Winter Games slated to be held in Beijing in 2022, Wang added he hopes those sporting events will bring the people of both nations closer.

“Through these Olympic Games, we’re going to promote further development of our ties, build a solid foundation and create a positive environment ahead of the important milestone the year after next: 50 years since Chinese-Japanese diplomatic relations were established,” Wang said. “We’re even planning for the next 50 years.”

Wang also revealed that he had delivered a message from Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the prime minister. In the message, according to Wang, Xi voiced his support for the Tokyo games and conveyed his willingness to cooperate with Suga on coronavirus and economic recovery measures by building “a good working relationship.”

In a morning briefing, Kato said he had delivered his concerns about the Senkakus as well as the crackdown in Hong Kong to Wang, but underscored the positives of their meeting.

“I told Mr. Wang the Suga administration’s position that emphasizing the importance of Japan-China relations won’t change and expressed its eagerness to build stable relations and contribute to the region and international society together as responsible powers,” the top government spokesman said.

“Mr. Wang told me that China, too, would like to play a constructive role together in this uncertain world and continue building on amicable ties.”

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi waves as he leaves a joint news conference with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi waves as he leaves a joint news conference with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo on Tuesday. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

Wang’s overall remarks at the joint news briefing Tuesday night were much longer than Motegi’s, a difference a Japanese Foreign Ministry official who was present during the meeting acknowledged later Tuesday evening.

The official declined to elaborate whether the Japanese side had foreseen that the Chinese foreign minister would take a jab at Tokyo’s position on the territorial dispute in public. The official, though, admitted Wang made a similar assertion during his meeting with Motegi, which the official portrayed as having a “good atmosphere” with candid discussions on the topics they have disagreements over.

The Japanese side brought up the territorial issue during Tuesday’s talks, with Motegi saying at the news conference that he had demanded Beijing take “positive action” over the repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels into waters around the Senkakus. But his tone was subdued compared with Wang’s.

Taking a page from China’s “Wolf Warrior” aggressive diplomatic playbook, the Chinese foreign minister was outspoken, even daring to rile the host country in public.

Although the move risked overshadowing the tangible progress made by the two countries, such as resuming business travel, Wang seemed determined to send a clear message not just to Japan but also neighboring Asian countries that are entangled in similar territorial disputes: China won’t back down.

Wang’s assertive behavior comes as China has watched warily as Japan has taken steps in recent months that the communist country views as a concerted bid to contain it.

In particular, officials in Beijing have voiced unease about Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy (FOIP), accusing Tokyo and its regional partners of working to develop a collective security body equivalent to an “Asian NATO” to counter China.

Japanese government officials insist the FOIP push is not designed to target China. Still, after Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in Tokyo last week that they had reached a broad defense agreement enabling their troops to work more closely — with China’s rising regional influence in mind — Beijing reacted angrily.

And when Motegi hosted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue last month, inviting top foreign affairs officials from the other three “Quad” countries — India, Australia and the U.S. — to discuss regional security matters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying slammed the gathering, saying that “organizing closed and exclusive cliques will not help to build mutual trust and cooperation.”

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