Six Chinese ships sailed into waters around a disputed archipelago yesterday, with Beijing saying they were there for “law enforcement” around islands Japan nationalized earlier this week.
The move — dubbed “unprecedented” by Tokyo — came as it was reported Japanese nationals had been physically attacked in China, marking the latest stage in a deteriorating row between Asia’s two biggest economies.
Japanese living in or visiting China were warned to take extra precautions after assaults and harassment were reported to the consulate in Shanghai.
Tokyo summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest what it insisted was an incursion into territorial waters around islands it controls, called the Senkakus, but claimed by Beijing, which refers to the islets as the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島).
However, China was resolute, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a forthright statement claiming the boats were patrolling sovereign territory.
“Two Chinese surveillance ship fleets have arrived at waters around the Diaoyu Islands and adjacent islands on September 14, 2012, to start patrol and law enforcement,” the statement said. “These law enforcement and patrol activities are designed to demonstrate China’s jurisdiction over the islands and safeguard its maritime interests.”
Japan’s coast guard said the ships had all left the area by around 1:20pm, approximately seven hours after the first vessel arrived.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba cut short his visit to Australia as tensions mounted.
“I’d like to underscore that we should never let the situation escalate,” he said. “We have strong hopes the Chinese government will respond to the situation in an appropriate and also a calm manner.”
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the foreign ministry summoned China’s ambassador, Cheng Yonghua (程永華), to lodge a protest.
“We understand that [the dispatch of] six ships is surely an unprecedented case,” he told a press conference.
Fujimura said Yonghua had reiterated Beijing’s claims to the islands in the East China Sea.