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China vs. Japan: The Spy Game

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Given the troubling news out of the Middle Kingdom today, it looks like the already rocky diplomatic relationship between China and Japan is not likely to improve in the near future.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei announced on Wednesday that two Japanese citizens have been detained by China on suspicion of espionage. Japanese media sources are also reporting that a third man is being held by Chinese authorities.

More on arrest of Japanese spies in China

A statement from Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the country’s diplomats had been providing support to the men who have been detained  since May. One man was apparently arrested in Liaoning province near the border with North Korea, and the other detained in Zhejiang province. Suga would not provide any further details or comment regarding the specific charges for which they were arrested. He also denied that the government of Japan undertakes espionage in other countries.

The arrests are likely to further damage already strained relations between Asia’s two largest economies. Besides the longstanding animosity stretching back to the Second World War, the two countries are embroiled in a dispute over a chain of uninhabited islands close to Taiwan claimed by both. There had been some signs of an improvement in ties in recent months, but Chinese President Xi has not held a formal summit with Japanese PM Abe and the two notably did not hold talks in this week when they were both at a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in the Big Apple.

“Our country certainly does not do this kind of thing,” Suga said to the media at a presser when asked whether the two men were on a spying mission.

The men who were arrested were a 55-year-old from Kanagawa prefecture and a 51-year-old from Aichi prefecture, according to Kyodo News. The third person was reported to be a 60-year-old man from Hokkaido.

Japan’s Asahi newspaper claimed in an earlier report that the two men did not live in China, but had traveled there separately. Of note, supposedly one of the men was arrested near a Chinese military facility.

American Sandy Phan-Gillis also recently arrested for “spying” in China

In a separate, but related development reported by ValueWalk last week, 55-year old American Sandy Phan-Gillis was also detained in March of this year as she was traveling through China as part of a delegation of local officials from Houston, Texas who were promoting U.S. – China business ties.

As is often the case, there was no announcement from the Chinese authorities regarding the detention of Phan-Gillis at the time. Eventually, her husband Jeff Gillis received notification from the U.S. State Department that Phan-Gillis had been held by agents of China’s Ministry of State Security who claimed she had been involved in espionage while in China.

China finally confirmed the arrest of Phan-Gillis on suspicion of “endangering national security” last week. The foreign ministry also noted at the time that China hoped “other countries” would understand that it was only exercising its right to protect national security. A spokesman for the ministry noted that Phan-Gillis was in good health and had been co-operating with the “relevant authorities” so far.

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