UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A territorial dispute over remote islands fueled an angry exchange between China and Japan at last year's U.N. General Assembly and sent relations to a new low. Whether the dispute plays out again at the world body this year will be a sign of how high the tensions remain.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the General Assembly on Thursday that his nation's interests are firmly connected to the stability of open seas, and "changes to the maritime order through use of force or coercion cannot be condoned under any circumstances."
It was Abe's first appearance at the annual gathering of world leaders since he was elected in December. He did not directly mention China, whose foreign minister, Wang Yi, will speak Friday.
Beijing and Tokyo aren't even close to settling their dispute. Over the past year, China has increased patrols near the Japanese-administered islands that it calls Diaoyu, and which Japan calls Senkaku. The cat-and-mouse between their ships and aircraft continues.
Last year's General Assembly came two weeks after Japan's government bought three of the five unoccupied islands in the chain from a private owner. Japan portrayed the purchase as an attempt to block a proposal from a nationalist politician to buy and develop the islands, which would have angered Beijing even more.
China wasn't persuaded by that explanation. It launched a stinging verbal attack on the floor of the General Assembly, accusing Japan of stealing the islands and "grossly violating" what it said had been part of China's territory since ancient times.
The unusually blunt language prompted a stiff response from Japan, which said it had every right to the land. China retorted that Japan had an "obsolete colonial mentality" — a reference to Japan's conquests during the first half of the 20th century.
While the threat of military escalation persists, the diplomatic heat appears to have cooled a bit after a five-minute exchange between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping early this month on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Russia.
In Washington last Friday, Wang acknowledged China's close people-to-people and business ties with Japan and said his country was open to dialogue to find a way out of the standoff. But he reiterated a condition that Japan is unwilling to accept — that it formally recognize the sovereignty dispute.
The islands, also claimed by Taiwan, stir a depth of nationalist passion that belies their size and remoteness. They are located roughly midway between Taiwan and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, and cover a total area of just 6 square kilometers (2.3 square miles).
Japan's formal claim to the Senkaku dates back to 1895 during the First Sino-Japanese War, but it says the islands weren't the spoil of conquest but acquisition of an unoccupied territory. China argues the islands have belonged to it for centuries and should be returned to its control.
Prominent Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain contended last week that Japan-China tensions are higher than at any time since the end of World War II. That's a major concern for Washington as a conflict risks sucking in the U.S., a Japanese treaty ally.
Over the past year, Japan's coast guard says there have been more than 200 intrusions by foreign vessels into Japanese-claimed waters near the islands. The closest call came in February, when Japan said a Chinese ship locked its weapons fire-control radar onto a Japanese ship in a hostile act. China denied it.