Japan announced on Wednesday that two of its citizens have been detained in China, and Beijing confirmed media reports saying the two Japanese citizens were suspected of being spies.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday that two Japanese nationals were detained by Chinese authorities in May. The two citizens, both men in their 50s, according to Suga, were being held in Zhejiang and Liaoning provinces respectively. Suga said that neither man was a Japanese government official, but were both from the private sector. He denied that Japan sends spies to China (or any other country, for that matter).
“Absolutely, our country hasn’t done such a thing,” Suga said, according to Kyodo News Agency.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei briefly addressed the report in a regular press conference. “Relevant authorities of China arrested in accordance with the law two Japanese on suspicion of acting as spies in China,” Hong said. “The Japanese side has been informed of that.”
An unnamed “high-ranking Japanese official” told Kyodo News that Japan decided to publicly announce the men’s plight because they had been held for so long – over five months. Other cases have been resolved far more quickly. In 2010, for example, four Japanese nationals were detained on suspicions of photographing a military base; all were released within three weeks.
“There are many cases of detaining [Japanese nationals in China]. But the two have been held for very long,” the official told Kyodo.
The announcement comes as China and Japan continue to try to right their bilateral relationship after years of tensions over historical issues and a territorial dispute. After an ice-breaking meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, the two sides have been restarting political and economic talks. A trilateral summit, including Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean leaders, is planned for late October or early November.
The detentions are putting a damper on ties. One official told Kyodo that China’s accusations of espionage were only an “excuse” to detain the men. He didn’t speculate as to what the ‘real’ motive might be.
Kyodo, citing unnamed sources familiar with China-Japan relations, said that one of the men had been detained near a military facility in Zhejiang. The other man was detained in Dandong, Liaoning, close to the China-North Korea border. Both are sensitive areas.
Chinese media previously reported that “fake tourists” were spying on China’s military bases. “Fake companies or sight-seeing tours are often used as pretexts by outside entities to approach sensitive Chinese facilities for the purpose of gathering military secrets,” an officer told China Daily. China passed a law in 2014 to strengthen PLA control over military restricted zones.
Meanwhile, China has arrested several foreigners near the China-North Korea border since 2014, including two Canadians who were detained on suspicion of stealing state secrets and a Korean-American missionary.