Six Chinese surveillance ships out of an eight-strong flotilla "illegally" entered in what Japan claims its territorial waters around a cluster of disputed islands on Friday morning, exacerbating tension between Tokyo and Beijing over the ownership of the uninhabited but resource-rich islands in the East China Sea.
China claimed that the ships were carrying out "law enforcement" to demonstrate its jurisdiction over the islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
This is the first intrusion into Japanese waters by Chinese government vessels since Japan nationalized the Senkakus on Tuesday, Japanese media reported quoting the country's Coast Guard.
Coast Guard officials said that while two ships belonging to China's State Oceanic Administration entered Japanese waters north of the Senkaku chain's Taisho island, four vessels entered the waters north of Kubashima island.
Confirming the ships' presence around the islands, Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing said "these law enforcement and patrol activities are aimed to demonstrate China's jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands and its affiliated islets and ensure the country's maritime interests."
Two ships steamed out of the region after Japanese Coast Guard issued warnings from their patrol boats and aircraft. The last time Chinese government vessels trespassed in Japanese waters was in July.
Responding to the warnings, crew members on the six intruding ships said they were on a routine patrol mission around the islands which they claimed "inherently Chinese territory." Japanese authorities last month had deported 14 Chinese activists from Hong Kong after arresting them for illegally landing on one of the Senkaku Islands.
The United States has called for "cooler heads to prevail" as tension mounted between China and Japan over the islands, which lie south of Okinawa where the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station is located. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is scheduled to visit both Japan and China this weekend as part of a tour of the Asia-Pacific region where the U.S. has great stakes.
Japan on Tuesday brought three of the islands in the Senkaku archipelago under state ownership "to maintain and manage them in a peaceful and stable manner." Nationalization of the islands is also aimed at ensuring safe navigation in its surrounding waters.
The Japanese government has decided to spend 2.05 billion yen (about $26 million) from reserve funds of the current year's budget to buy the three islands for which a deal had been struck with Japanese businessman Kunioki Kurihara, who claims to be the current owner of the islands.
The Senkaku group of five uninhabited islands is under the administrative jurisdiction of Ishigaki city in Okinawa prefecture. The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, are claimed by all the three countries as the region surrounding them is oil-rich and close to key international shipping routes.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said transferring the islands' ownership from an individual to the state government should pose no problem to any other country or territory.
Japan does not wish to hurt its broader relationship with China, Fujimora said adding that the government would carefully explain its position to China to avoid any future misunderstanding or contingency involving the Senkaku islands.
But Chinese Defense Ministry issued a statement the same day saying that its armed forces were completely opposed to the Japanese government's move to "purchase" the Diaoyu and two of its adjacent islands.
Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands were China's "inherent territory," and that the country had sufficient historical and jurisprudential evidence to prove it.
by RTT Staff Writer
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