Japan rejects China claim to islands but urges talks

TOKYO, September 22, 2010 (AFP) - Japan stuck to its guns Wednesday in a bitter row with China over a maritime incident near a disputed island chain but also called for high-level talks to resolve the two-week-old row.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara rejected China's claim to the islands that lie between Okinawa and Taiwan, in an area of the East China Sea that boasts rich fishing grounds and possible oil and gas reserves.

Maehara was speaking late Tuesday in New York, where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also urged Japan to "immediately and unconditionally" release a boat captain it arrested after a collision near the islands two weeks ago.

In Tokyo, Japan's top government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku called for high-level talks with China to resolve the dispute.

"It would be good to hold high-level talks, including a comprehensive and strategic dialogue, as quickly as possible," Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku told a news conference.

Asked if Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan should look for a chance to meet Wen in New York, Sengoku said: "That would be one option. We should also check if there are other ways, as soon as possible."

China has reacted with fury to the captain's September 8 arrest after his trawler collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels.

Beijing has launched a string of diplomatic protests and snubs and cancelled several cultural events, arguing that Japan has no jurisdiction near the islands, known as Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

Maehara also said he would like to talk with Chinese officials to resolve the issue and explain Japan's position.

Speaking to media in New York, ahead of the UN General Assembly starting Thursday, Maehara said: "China is an important neighbour and we have to build a solid, mutually beneficial strategic partnership."

"We are dealing with the issue in a cool-headed way -- nothing more and nothing less. If there is an opportunity, I hope to explain Japan's position" to China, he said, noting however that no meetings had been scheduled.

"At the same time, the Senkaku islands are Japan's own territory, and there is no territorial issue," Maehara said. "If something happens, we deal with it in accordance with domestic laws."