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Nuclear row sours Japanese ties with China
Published on: 2010-05-18
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A push by Japan’s ruling Democratic party to forge closer ties with China has failed to prevent rising diplomatic friction between the two Asian powers over nuclear disarmament and naval operations in the seas that divide them.

In a strikingly direct personal criticism, China at the weekend denounced Katsuya Okada, Japan’s foreign minister, for making “irresponsible” remarks about Beijing’s nuclear deterrent policy during a meeting with Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart.

The same meeting also involved a robust exchange of views on a incidents involving vessels of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force that have prompted diplomatic complaints from both sides.

While far from marking a return to the political chill that enveloped Sino-Japanese ties for much of the past decade, the frictions highlight the difficulties facing efforts by the DPJ, which swept to power in Japan in last year’s general election, to establish a more constructive relationship with its most important near neighbour.

Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese prime minister, has pledged to work to build an “East Asian community” with China and other nations in the region, although Beijing’s response to the initiative has been unenthusiastic.

Frictions with Beijing could ease concerns among some in Washington that Japan’s 50-year-old alliance with the US might be a casualty of DPJ efforts to snuggle up to the region’s new rising power.

Mr Okada has repeatedly dismissed such talk, telling the Financial Times last month that China's growing power made it essential to “further strengthen” the alliance.

But Mr Okada’s call for China to join in international moves toward nuclear disarmament could cast a shadow on a planned visit to Tokyo by Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, after a three-way summit with South Korea this month.

China’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that Mr Okada had accused Beijing of failing to fulfil its commitment to nuclear disarmament but Mr Yang had rebutted his “irresponsible remarks on the spot”.

An insider said the exchange on the topic was “pretty severe”, with Mr Yang questioning Japan’s right to challenge it on the topic given Tokyo’s dependence on the huge US nuclear “umbrella” for its own security.

The strength of Mr Yang’s reaction might reflect anxiety in the Chinese government that US and Russian high-profile willingness to reduce their nuclear arsenals could subject it to pressure that would undermine its ability to maintain a deterrent.

Nuclear arms experts believe that Beijing will not feel safe enough to start considering cutting its own strategic forces until the US and Russia have cut their arsenal to 500 warheads or less. China also feels that its nuclear strategy is being undermined by missile defence systems under development.

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