World / US and Canada

US official visits Tokyo as island questions linger

By Li Xiaokun (China Daily) Updated: 2012-10-15 02:15

US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on Sunday became the latest in a long line of high-level US officials to meet with Japanese officials in Tokyo ahead of or after a visit to China, amid a festering territorial dispute between the two Asian powers.

Questions remain over Washington's role in the dispute, as Beijing and Tokyo prepare for a likely vice-ministerial level talk seeking reconciliation over the Diaoyu Islands issue.

Kyodo News Agency reported on Saturday that Washington and Tokyo are continuing to prepare for a joint military drill, scheduled for November, which will simulate retaking a remote island from foreign forces.

Chinese experts said Washington is trying to balance its interests in East Asia on the eve of its general elections at home.

However, the drill, alluding to the Diaoyu Islands, will not necessarily add to Japan's advantage in the coming confrontation, but might shadow the expected vice-ministerial talks, they said.

According to a statement from the US Department of State, Burns departed from the US on Saturday for an eight-day, five-state Asia trip starting in Japan.

On Sunday and Monday Burns was scheduled to meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and other senior officials to discuss issues including "US-Japan coordination on regional issues in East Asia", according to the document.

Burns is scheduled to meet senior Chinese officials in Beijing on Wednesday. Japanese media said strained relations between Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyu Islands are high on his agenda.

Jia Xiudong, a senior researcher on international affairs at the China Institute of International Studies, said Burns is the fourth high-level US official to shuttle between China and Japan since tensions over the Diaoyu Islands escalated earlier this year.

US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta all visited both China and Japan during their trips to the region.

"The visit of Burns, arranged in the month before the US general elections, is mainly aimed at ensuring a stable relationship with China and a stable geopolitical environment for the US in East Asia," Jia said.

"However, the US-Japan drill shows what Washington wants is not only stability, but also dominance in the region, though it has repeated that it won't take sides on the Diaoyu Islands issue," he added.

Kyodo quoted unidentified sources on Saturday as saying that the "island retaking" drill is part of broader joint maneuvers scheduled from November 5 to 16 involving more than 10,000 troops.

It will reportedly use an uninhabited island in Okinawa, in Southern Japan.

The tiny island, used as a firing range for US forces, is in the East China Sea.

Jiji Press reported that some Japanese and US officials were cautious about arranging the drill, concerned about further irritating Beijing.

"Although the two governments said the drill is not targeted at any specific country, there is no doubt the drill is aware of the dispute," said the Kyodo report, adding that harsh criticism from Beijing is to be expected.

This is the first time Japan and the US have had an "island retaking" drill on a Japanese offshore island. The two nations had a similar drill in late August on Guam and nearby Tinian Island.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Sunday reviewed a major exercise marking the 60th anniversary of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force, and was quoted saying that Japan faces "severe" challenges to its security, though he did not specifically mention the dispute with China.

Noda demanded the sailors be prepared to face "new responsibilities" as the security situation shifts.

"Through this move we can also see Japan's complex feelings on the dispute," said Huang Dahui, a professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.

"Just a few days ago we noticed that Japan has felt great pressure and tried to break the impasse after Chinese citizens vowed to boycott Japanese goods after Japan 'nationalized' the Diaoyu Islands on Sept 11," he said.

Beijing and Tokyo confirmed late last week that they are planning vice-ministerial talks to break the Diaoyu Islands deadlock.

Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba on Friday said both sides need to think calmly as communication continues, yet he added that "the important thing is that we cannot give over what we cannot give over".

"And now the US-Japan drill would absolutely send a negative signal to Beijing," Huang said.

"The chilly relations between China and Japan have been brought by Japan's reckless decision, and now it seems its dual character will dim the prospects for reconciliation."

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