TOKYO — Japan brushed off stern warnings by China and bought a group of islands today that both claim, in a growing dispute that threatens to deepen strains between Asia’s two biggest economies.
Chinese official media said Beijing had sent two patrol ships to waters surrounding the islands to reassert its claim and accused Japan of “playing with fire” over the long-simmering row. The army warned that further, unspecified steps could follow.
“The Chinese military expresses its staunch opposition and strong protest over this,” Defence Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said in remarks posted on the ministry’s website.
“The Chinese government and military are unwavering in their determination and will to defend national territorial sovereignty. We are closely following developments, and reserve the power to adopt corresponding measures.”
Tokyo insisted it had only peaceful intentions in making the US $26.18 million purchase of three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, until now leased by the government from a Japanese family that has owned them since early 1970s.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba repeated Japan’s line that the purchase served “peaceful and stable maintenance of the islands”.
“We cannot damage the stable development of the Japan-China relationship because of that issue. Both nations need to act calmly and from a broad perspective,” he told reporters after a cabinet meeting approved the transaction.
The Japanese Coast Guard will administer the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, which are near rich fishing grounds and potentially huge maritime gas fields.
Geng accused Japan of “using all kinds of excuses to expand its armaments, and repeatedly creating regional tensions”.
Beijing has avoided sending military forces into disputed seas at the heart of quarrels with neighbours, including Japan, instead using civilian government vessels to stake its claims.
China’s Xinhua news agency reported that two China Marine Surveillance vessels reached the waters around the islets on Tuesday morning. The government force is in charge of enforcing law and order in China’s claimed territorial waters, but operates separately from the navy.
The Japanese Coast Guard could not confirm the report about the CMS vessels. (Reuters)