Last updated: February 6, 2013 5:18 am

Abe blasts China over maritime incident

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a Chinese marine surveillance ship (L) cruising next to a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship (R) in the East China Sea near the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China©EPA

Shinzo Abe has accused China of provocatively escalating an increasingly dangerous Sino-Japanese spat over the Senkaku Islands, a day after Tokyo accused the Chinese navy of aiming weapons at a Japanese warship.

“It was a unilateral, provocative act and extremely regrettable,’’ the Japanese prime minister said on Wednesday. “I urge strong restraint by China so the situation will not unnecessarily escalate.”

Japan’s defence ministry on Tuesday said a Chinese frigate had locked a weapons radar on to a Japanese destroyer on January 30, and that a Chinese ship had targeted a Japanese helicopter in the same way two weeks before that.

“This is extremely abnormal behaviour,” Itsunori Onodera, Japanese defence minister, said on Tuesday. “A small mistake could have led to a very dangerous situation.”

The escalation follows a string of increasingly serious incidents over the small chain of East China Sea islands – which China calls the Diaoyu – in recent months.

The clash, which remains the most serious of several maritime disputes between an increasingly assertive China and its neighbours, has spilled over into the economic realm and threatened to embroil the US, which is Japan’s military ally.

Beijing last month criticised Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, after she said Washington opposed “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the islands. Trade between China and Japan has also fallen because of unofficial consumer boycotts of Japanese goods in China.

On Tuesday Victoria Nuland, the US state department spokesperson, said Washington was concerned that the latest episode could “escalate tensions” and lead to a potential “miscalculation”.

Senkaku Islands map

With tensions in the area running high, and both sides having dispatched fighter planes and ships in recent months, experts warn that even a small accident or perceived provocation could tip Asia’s two main powers into armed conflict.

In January, Beijing said it had scrambled fighters against Japanese military aircraft, in the first acknowledgment that the dispute had escalated to include the military. But the alleged radar “lock-on” by the Chinese ship marks the first time that one side has reported being targeted by the other’s weapons.

The incident could damage efforts to ease tensions. A longstanding disagreement over the ownership of the Senkaku boiled over in September after the Japanese government bought several of the islands from their private Japanese owner, prompting accusations from Beijing that Tokyo was trying to tighten its control.

Until Tuesday, a quiet diplomatic effort appeared to be making headway. Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist party leader, on January 25 told a coalition partner of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that China was willing to discuss the issue.

Mr Xi, who is slated to replace Hu Jintao as president next month, said the two powers had a joint responsibility to ensure peace and stability. Following the meeting, a barrage of bellicose language in the Chinese media calmed down, and Chinese government ships avoided the waters around the islands for several days.

The Chinese defence and foreign ministries on Tuesday did not comment on the Japanese accusations.

Colonel Dai Xu, a professor at the National Defense University where the Chinese military trains young officers, said “Chinese ships would only have taken such steps to send a warning to Japanese naval vessels after being threatened by them”.

China-based diplomats expressed hope that Mr Xi and Mr Abe would meet on the sidelines of a trilateral summit with South Korea’s new president in April or May, but added that it was difficult to see how the deadlock could be resolved.

“Although the tone has been a bit softer since January 25, we don’t see a way out at the moment,” said one Japanese diplomat. “We are stuck.”

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