China sent six patrol boats to the East China Sea near disputed islands, in the latest stage of a confrontation with Japan after Tokyo nationalized the contended territory.
China’s Foreign Ministry explained in a statement early on Friday that the surveillance ships were carrying out “law enforcement over China’s maritime rights.”
“The Chinese side has taken completely justifiable actions to uphold its rights and interests,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, adding that the move was a “normal performance duty.”
The ships, which had reached disputed waters around 7:00 am local time on Friday, all left the area by the afternoon. When ordered to leave, the Chinese ships replied "these islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times," according to the Japanese coast guard.
The Japanese government, which had sealed a deal to purchase the islands earlier this week, called Beijing’s move unprecedented and summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest.
Wang Dong, professor of International Relations at Beijing University, said that Japan had miscalculated Beijing’s determination to defend its sovereignty.
“We are entering a serious phase of the game,” he says, “Japan simply ignored China’s warrant and went on with the nationalization, and I think China had no choice but to make a very strong reaction to that, and sending patrol ships to the Diaoyu Islands is simply one of those counter measures.”
The islets, known in China as Diaoyu and in Japan as Senkaku, lie near strategic shipping and fishing grounds, as well as potential oil and gas reserves. Japan has defacto control over the maritime rocks, which are also claimed by Taiwan.
The recent round of tensions started in mid-August, when a group of Chinese activists sailed to one of the Diaoyu Islands and planted a Chinese flag. Japan arrested the protestors, but freed them shortly after in a move that many analysts said helped Tokyo avoid confrontation with China.
Since then, anti-Japanese sentiments grew within China, with scores of people taking part in different protests outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, and in other cities of China.
On Friday, the Japanese consulate in Shanghai reported that Japanese nationals had been physically assaulted, and that bottles, drinks and food had been thrown at a group that was dining late at night in Shanghai.
During his meeting with the Chinese ambassador, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura urged China to do its utmost to ensure the security of Japanese citizens and companies.
Wang Dong says that the recent protests reflect people’s anger at Japanese actions, and that they will be dealt with according to the law. “If Chinese citizens violated laws, the Chinese government will take action,” he says.
Public display of angst threatens to upset the two countries’ tight economic links, as well as the potential upcoming political transition in both countries. Leaders of the two Asian powers have warned against further escalation, while keeping firm on their respective claims to the same territory.
On Thursday, China submitted a clarifying document to the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In it, Beijing stated its sovereignty in the region and included the islands as its own territorial waters.