China asks Japan to ‘maintain relations’

China has called on Japan to “maintain the full spectrum of relations” between the two nations amid a damaging territorial row that has rumbled on for more than three weeks.

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“China attaches great importance to its relations with Japan. We hope Japan will work with China to maintain the full spectrum of bilateral relations,” said Ma Zhaoxu, the chief spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs.

The statement came after Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called on China to behave as a “responsible member of the international community” as the two sides work through their worst spat in several years, centred on a disputed island chain.

In what is perhaps the most conciliatory statement to come from Beijing since the standoff began with the September 8 arrest of a Chinese trawlerman, Ma nevertheless reiterated China’s claim to the islands in comments posted on the foreign affairs ministry website.

He said the Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu islands in Chinese, “have always been Chinese territory” and repeated Beijing’s line that Tokyo’s arrest and detention of the fisherman was “absurd” and “illegal”.

Earlier Friday, Kan told the opening of the Japanese parliamentary session: “The Senkaku islands are an integral part of our country, historically and under international law.”

Japan’s centre-left leader also voiced concerns about China’s military muscle and its recent display of hardball diplomacy in the bitter spat.

“We are concerned that China… has strengthened its defence power without transparency and that it has intensified its maritime activities in regions from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea,” Kan said.

Japan and its top security ally the United States have in the past called for greater transparency in China’s military spending, which has seen double-digit growth for much of the past two decades.

The comments Friday from Ma, China’s most senior foreign affairs spokesman, could be an attempt by Beijing to ease the row between the two economic giants that began with the arrest of the fisherman for allegedly ramming Japanese coastguard vessels.

He was subsequently released in what was criticised at home as a climbdown by Japan in the face of Chinese pressure, but the war of words continued.

China’s arrest of four Japanese for allegedly illegally intruding on a military site last week heightened tensions, although both sides insisted the move was unrelated to the maritime spat.

Three of the four were freed and arrived back in Japan on Friday, although a fourth remains in detention.

In an apparent conciliatory move by Japan, Tokyo this week signalled Kan’s intention to go to Brussels for the EU-Asia summit in a bid to engineer a meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

Feelings in Japan continue to run high, however, with nationalists planning to hold a rally in Tokyo Saturday to protest what they see as Japan’s weak response to China.