China surveillance ships near islands disputed with Japan
Updated : 09/14/2012 10:58 GMT + 7
Six Chinese surveillance ships entered waters near disputed islands claimed by Tokyo and Beijing on Friday, raising tensions between Asia's two biggest economies to their highest level since 2010 over a long-running territorial row.
China's foreign ministry said that the ships entered the disputed waters to conduct maritime surveillance and that for the first time China was carrying out a mission of "law enforcement over its maritime rights".
"It reflects our government's jurisdiction over the Diaoyu islands," it said in a statement. The ministry has used similar language in the past.
The islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, are near potentially huge maritime gas and oil fields.
The Japanese coast guard said it ordered the ships to leave Japan's territorial waters, but only three complied, leaving three vessels still in the disputed area. No force had been used to remove the Chinese ships, a coast guard official said.
"We'll do our utmost in vigilance and surveillance," said Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda when asked about Japan's responses.
Diplomats say Tokyo and Beijing would prefer to keep the row from spiraling out of control and harming deep economic ties.
But with China facing a once-in-a-decade leadership change and an election looming in Japan that the ruling party looks set to lose, managing the row could be harder than in the past.
"The dangers of miscalculation are real," said Brad Glosserman, executive director at Honolulu's Pacific Forum CSIS.
The uninhabited islets were at the centre of a chill between Beijing and Tokyo in 2010, after Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the area.
Sino-Japanese relations have long been plagued by China's bitter memories of Japan's military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s and present rivalry over resources and regional clout.
Threat to trade
China warned Japan on Thursday that trade could be hurt by the flare-up in tension. China, the world's second-largest economy is Japan's biggest trading partner with mutual trade in 2011 growing 14.3 percent in value to a record $345 billion.
A Nissan Motor Co Ltd executive has said the tensions were already affecting business with China.
Tensions flared last month when Japan detained Chinese activists who had landed on the islands and Japanese nationalists landed on the islands. Anti-Japanese protests rocked several Chinese cities.
Japan's consulate in Shanghai said on its website at least four Japanese citizens had been injured in attacks stemming from the tensions and warned Japanese in the city to be careful.
Bilateral relations were frayed further on Tuesday when Japan, which controls the islands, said it had bought them from a private owner, ignoring warnings from China that the move would breach its sovereignty.
Noda's government decided on the purchase after the outspoken nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, floated his own provocative plan for the metropolitan authorities to buy and build facilities on the islands.
China must protect sovereignty
China's official Xinhua news agency on Thursday said a senior Chinese military official had urged the army to be "prepared for any possible military combat", though the report made no mention of the territorial dispute with Japan.
"Efforts should be made to ensure that the military is capable of resolutely performing its duty to safeguard the country's national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity whenever it is needed by the Party and the people," Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission, was cited as telling soldiers.
Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington D.C., said the situation on the Diaoyu islands was worrying.
"We cannot eliminate the possibility of military conflict," said Li. "The tension is real. The Chinese government is put in a corner. They have to speak very tough."
"Chinese leaders actually talk tough and act carefully, but sometimes it's out of your control. Chinese public opinion has become so powerful. They have to talk very, very tough. By doing so, they will help enhance the tensions."
Xinhua also said China had filed with the United Nations a copy of the exact coordinates for its claim over the islands during a meeting between China's permanent representative to the United Nations Li Baodong and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"China has now fulfilled all the obligations as stipulated in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and has completed the whole legal process...," Xinhua reported.
The United States this week urged both sides to tone down increasingly impassioned exchanges over the longstanding row.
The last time Chinese government-affiliated ships entered Japanese territorial waters near the disputed islands was in mid-July, the coast guard said. That incident ended peacefully and without any significant diplomatic fallout.