China and Japan Fall Out Over Uighurs
  • Tue, 05/15/2012 - 22:19

Updated May 15, 2012, 6:15 p.m. ET

TOKYO—Signs of tension are returning to relations between Japan and China, casting shadows over accelerating efforts between the two East Asian powers to strengthen their economic ties.

In the latest sign of renewed strain, China has harshly condemned Japan for allowing a group of exiled Uighur activists to hold a major conference in Tokyo this week. China considers the group, the World Uyghur Congress, an "anti-China separatist organization." Calling it a private group, Tokyo says it won't interfere with its activities.

China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has become one of country's most unstable in recent years, with riots leaving members of both the Uighur ethnic minority group—many of whom are Muslim and have close cultural ties to Turkey—and of China's majority Han ethnic group dead. The Chinese government has blamed the World Uyghur Congress for the rioting. As Beijing has embarked on a campaign to promote investment in the region, Han entrepreneurs have flocked there, in many cases further exacerbating Uighur resistance.

In a signal of its dissatisfaction with Tokyo's Uighur position, China failed to arrange a bilateral meeting between President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Sunday in Beijing, where the two nations and South Korea agreed to start formal negotiations for a trilateral free-trade agreement. To the annoyance of Japanese officials, Mr. Hu did meet bilaterally with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Then Tuesday came the abrupt cancellation of a scheduled meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Hiromasa Yonekura, who is head of Japan's powerful Keidanren business lobby and was visiting. Chinese officials didn't have an immediate comment.

Relations between China and Japan were placid for a while after Japan was hit by natural and nuclear disasters in March 2011. But tension has returned in recent months, stoked in part by provocative remarks from some of Japan's more nationalist and vocal politicians.

Among them were Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara's proposal that his municipal government buy some East China Sea islands that are the subject of a territorial dispute between China and Japan, and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura's denial of Japanese atrocities in China in the 1930s.

Several Japanese lawmakers from conservative parties have attended the Uighur conference.

Beijing, meanwhile, has stepped up naval activities in sensitive waters between the two nations.

The diplomatic twists of recent days recall the last major confrontation between Japan and China, in the fall of 2010. A collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese patrol vessels near the disputed East China Sea islands—known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese—led to a bitter spat between the two governments, denting economic relations for many months afterward.

This week's conference in Tokyo is attended by a number of Uighur activists in exile, including the leader of the World Uyghur Congress, Rebiya Kadeer.

Responding to Chinese criticism over her being issued a visa, Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said Tokyo had simply followed its set rules and procedures.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed "strong dissatisfaction" with Japan's stance.

"Anti-China separatists from the World Uyghur Congress have colluded with Japan's right-wing forces and exposed their political determination to separate their homeland and undermine China-Japan relations," he said at a news conference Monday.
—Kersten Zhang in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Yuka Hayashi at