As China's territorial disputes come under the spotlight at ASEAN meeting

Japan on Wednesday lodged a formal protest with China, summoning its Ambassador in Tokyo, after three Chinese patrol boats were spotted in waters off disputed islands in the East China Sea, over which both countries claim sovereignty. The boats left the area after a warning from the coast guard.

The strain emerged as their Foreign Ministers met in Phnom Penh, on the sidelines of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) meeting, where China’s territorial disputes with many of its neighbours are in focus.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who held talks with his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba, “reaffirmed China’s principled position” and “stressed that the Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islets have always been China’s territory since ancient times, over which China has indisputable sovereignty”, according to a statement.

The two countries have in recent months sparred over the islands, referred to by Japan as the Senkaku islands. Tensions rose further in recent days after Tokyo spoke of plans to “buy” the islands from a private developer, a move rejected by China as a provocation. In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin told reporters China “does not accept the representation lodged by Japan”, adding that the vessels had “entered into the waters under Chinese jurisdiction to conduct official duties in accordance with Chinese law”.

According to Chinese authorities, the three fishery patrol vessels arrived near the islands at 2 a.m. on Wednesday while they were “conducting routine patrols” that were being carried out “to safeguard the interests of the Chinese oceanic fishing industry and ensure safety of Chinese fishermen.”

In a move that could further strain ties, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is planning to hold a drill in the East China Sea, in waters off eastern Zhejiang province that are not part of the dispute, the Chinese Defence Ministry said this week.

Separately, China has come under pressure from Asean countries this week to adopt a code of conduct to defuse tensions in the disputed South China Sea, in the wake of recent tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam.

Chinese officials reiterated their opposition to the South China Sea disputes figuring in Thursday’s Asean Regional Forum meeting, which includes the 10-member grouping’s dialogue partners.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Cambodia on Wednesday, said in Hanoi earlier this week that Washington would “look to Asean to make rapid progress with China toward an effective code of conduct in order to ensure that as challenges arise they are managed and resolved peacefully through a consensual process in accordance with established principles of international law”.

The state-run Xinhua news agency, in a commentary on Wednesday, stressed China’s opposition to the issue being discussed at the meeting, calling on Asean Foreign Ministers to “be wary of letting the South China Sea issue distract their primary focus of advancing regional cooperation”.

“It is preferable and crucial that the Phnom Penh meetings keep to their agenda and leave South China Sea issue to China and the specific Asean countries concerned,” said the commentary.

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