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TOKYO (AP) — China has arrested two Japanese citizens on spying allegations, officials said Wednesday.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters that the two were detained in May, one in Zhejiang province and the other in Liaoning. China said the two are suspected of spying.

Suga said that the Japanese government knew about the arrests soon after the two were detained, but withheld the information due to safety reasons.

He said the two are not government employees, but refused to give other details on the arrests, including the specific allegations they face. Suga said that the Japanese government “absolutely (does) no such thing,” referring to sending spies to other countries.

The government has provided support for the two through Japanese diplomatic establishments, Suga said, without elaborating. A Foreign Ministry official in charge of the safety of overseas Japanese said the two detainees were in good health, but that any prospect for their release was not known.

China’s government said authorities arrested the two on suspicion of spying.

“The legal basis of the arrests is that these two people engaged in spying in China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing Wednesday in Beijing. “If there’s anything in common for these two people, it’s that both of them engaged in spying in China.”

Spying carries a maximum penalty of execution in China.

Japanese newspapers and television stations reported that the two were both men. One was apprehended near military facilities in coastal Zhejiang, and the other near the border with North Korea at about the same time, according to the reports, which cited unnamed sources familiar with Japan-China affairs. Kyodo News agency reported that a third Japanese man was also in custody over an unknown allegation.

The arrests could strain Tokyo’s already troubled relations with Beijing, though there have been signs recently of a thaw.

Satoshi Tomisaka, a China expert at Takushoku University, said that the arrests reflected China’s tightening of its surveillance against growing foreign influence, a move that reflects President Xi Jinping’s leadership.

“We can assume that underlings believe tightening control is what the leadership wants them to do, and acting faithfully,” he told Japanese national broadcaster NHK.

In 2010, four employees of a Japanese construction company were accused of filming a Chinese military site in Hebei province but were released within a few weeks.


Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo and news assistant Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.