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China says Japan distorted facts in island dispute

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HANOI, Vietnam  — China issued scathing comments directed at Japan and the United States on Friday, a day after the two allies discussed a territorial dispute in the East China Sea that has plunged Sino-Japanese relations to a new low.

China’s renewed anger appeared to scuttle plans for a meeting between the two countries’ leaders.

Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue told reporters in Hanoi that Japan was making untrue statements and turning the contested islands — called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan — into a "hot topic" on the sidelines of an Asian regional summit by talking to the media and holding discussions with other countries prior to the meeting.

"Japan spread groundless distortions. … They want to make the Diaoyu islands a hot-topic issue," he said. "The Japanese side should take responsibility for ruining the atmosphere for leaders of the two countries."

Beijing also slammed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for speaking out about the territorial dispute after holding meetings with Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara on Thursday in Hawaii, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said.

China again asserted its sovereignty over the islands, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu saying they "have been an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times."

Foreign ministers from Japan and China met earlier Friday in an attempt to mend fences over a dispute last month involving the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler with two Japanese patrol boats near the disputed islands. The row that followed sent relations between the two nations to their lowest point in five years.

There was optimism that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan would meet during the summit in Vietnam, but Hu said the Japanese side had ruined the atmosphere.

It appeared unlikely that a meeting would take place, with Japanese Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama saying later that there were no plans for bilateral talks in Hanoi. Kan was quoted as saying that he "will respond calmly."

Maehara had earlier said that Japan "repeated its position firmly" regarding the territorial issue.

Last month, Japan arrested the Chinese fishing boat captain after the collision near the islands, enraging China, which called it an illegal action. Japan eventually released him, but tensions have remained high.

The incident has stoked anti-Japanese sentiment, with protests involving hundreds flaring in cities across China.

Earlier in the day, as the two sides called for improved ties, Japan appealed for the lifting of a block on Chinese exports of rare earth metals crucial for its high-tech manufacturing.

Japan also asked China to reopen talks on the joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea, Japanese Foreign Minister Maehara said. Beijing suspended the gas field talks during the spat.

A day earlier, Maehara met with Clinton in Hawaii, where she said the restrictions on exports of rare earths served as a "wake-up call" for the global high-tech industry to diversify its suppliers. China currently produces 97 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, used in everything from laptops to cell phones.

China said Thursday it will not use the metals as a "bargaining tool."

Tokyo recently said it planned to mine rare earths in Vietnam as a way to reduce its dependence on China.

On Saturday, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, will formally invite the U.S. and Russia to join their annual East Asian Summit. The U.S. inclusion is largely seen as a counterweight to help offset China’s regional might.

Southeast Asian countries have become increasingly rattled in recent months, accusing China of being a bully following a series of territorial spats on the high seas. China has laid claim to strategically placed and potentially oil-rich islands in the South China Sea, but parts of the territory are also claimed by several Southeast Asian countries.

China has strongly pushed to keep territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea out of talks held by ASEAN, preferring instead to deal with clashes one on one. But the smaller countries have refused to back down.

"ASEAN should have one voice before we venture (into) talking to other claimants," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said, adding that he and other Southeast Asian leaders aired concerns during a dinner Thursday centered around maintaining peace and keeping busy shipping lanes open in the South China Sea.


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