Japan vows to defend islands from China

TOKYO — Japan’s prime minister vowed Saturday to defend disputed remote islands from threats by China after a series of confrontations that have raised the risk of an armed clash.

“The security environment surrounding our country is increasingly becoming more severe as we face provocation to our territorial rights,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. “I will take the lead to stand up against the present danger and protect the people’s lives and asset, as well as our land, the seas and the air at all costs.”

His comments, made in a speech to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in the country’s south, apparently referred to China’s growing presence near the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China. Japan’s nationalization of the islands in September triggered violent protests across China, hurting Japanese companies there and the economy.

China has sent surveillance ships regularly to waters near the islands, and aircraft from the two sides have trailed each other, raising the risk of missteps that could trigger a clash.

Japan has recently launched diplomatic efforts to ease tensions, with China-friendly officials visiting Beijing for talks.

Abe’s government last week endorsed a budget bill for this year that included 4.75 trillion yen ($51 billion) in proposed defense spending partly aimed at beefing up Japan’s coastal and marine surveillance around islands also claimed by China and Taiwan. The government also plans to beef up Coast Guard deployment in the area.

Later Saturday, Abe was to visit the regional Coast Guard office on the southern island of Okinawa, which is in charge of patrolling in the waters around the disputed islands, to meet the officers.

Also Saturday, Coast Guard officials said they arrested the Chinese captain of a 100-ton boat earlier Saturday off the northeastern coast of Miyako island, about 200 kilometers southwest of the disputed islands, for suspected illegal fishing inside Japanese exclusive economic waters.

The captain Chang Long, 63, along with his 12 crewmembers and his boat, was taken to the nearby Hirara port for further investigation. Japanese officials said the boat was far enough from the disputed island and believe it was unrelated to China’s territorial claims.

There was no immediate response from the Chinese foreign ministry Saturday.

During his Okinawa visit, Abe also met with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and promised his effort to speed up the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which Japan and the United States had decided to close more than a decade ago.

The base, located in a heavily populated area of Okinawa, is still in operation because a replacement site hasn’t been readied. The Futenma issue is expected to be among the main topics Abe plans to discuss with President Barack Obama during his planned U.S. trip in February.

More than half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed throughout Japan are based on Okinawa.

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