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China Sends Patrol to Islands at Center of Japan Dispute

China Sends Ships to Disputed Islands as Japan Tensions Rise
Protesters hold a banner reading "Diaoyu islands belong to China" as people march down a street in the eastern city of Weihai, China. Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

China deployed patrol boats near a disputed island chain after Japan strengthened its assertion of control over them, escalating a standoff between the world’s second and third-largest economies.

The official Xinhua News Agency said two ships from the China Marine Surveillance reached waters around the East China Sea islands today. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government earlier reached a deal to buy the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from a private owner for 2.05 billion yen ($26.2 million).

Chinese denunciations of the move come as the ruling Communist Party prepares for a generational leadership change this year. The standoff is one of several territorial disputes both countries have with neighbors over resource rich waters, and maritime spats were a focus of last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vladivostok, Russia.

“China sees it as a pretext for Japan to reaffirm its sovereignty of the islands, and the Chinese leadership cannot afford to be seen as being complacent in light of this,” said Stephanie Klein-Ahlbrandt, the Beijing-based North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. “We will see more tensions over this disputed area, with higher risk for skirmishes or incidents that could be hard to de-escalate.”

Embassy Protest

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei today accused Japan of stealing the islands, and Defense Ministry spokesman Gen Yansheng said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website that the military’s determination “to defend the country’s territorial sovereignty is unwavering.”

Protests over the Japanese move occurred in at least three Chinese cities today, Xinhua said. Demonstrators in the eastern city of Weihai demanded a boycott of Japanese goods, while about 10 protesters gathered at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and “several people” shouted slogans outside the Japanese Consulate in Guangzhou, it said.

Japan’s nationalization of the chain follows an April proposal by Tokyo governor and China critic Shintaro Ishihara to buy and develop them. While Noda’s government has stressed that the purchase will prevent such plans and sought to minimize the impact of the move, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday reiterated his country’s claims and said it would make no concessions on the issue.

Maintain Relations

“We want to maintain the Senkakus peaceably and stably,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said today in announcing the cabinet approval of the deal. “We hope this won’t affect overall Japan-China relations.” At a later press conference, Fujimura said the Japanese Coast Guard hadn’t confirmed the presence of Chinese ships, adding that any such patrol shouldn’t enter Japanese waters.

The boats fall under China’s State Oceanic Administration, making them law enforcement vessels, Klein-Ahlbrandt said.

“Their use is a welcome alternative to naval vessels, because they are seen as less threatening and skirmishes between them less severe,” she said. “At the same time, however, the extensive use of law enforcement vessels lowers the threshold of entry into confrontation.”

Noda met Chinese President Hu Jintao at the APEC summit on Sept. 9 to discuss the situation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the same forum said countries in the region needed to cool their tempers on the territorial disputes.

Pull Back

“A healthy and stable China-Japan relationship is important to China, and also vitally important to Japan,” the state-run People’s Daily newspaper said in a commentary today. “We urge the Japanese government to understand the situation and pull its horse back from the cliff.”

A separate spat with South Korea over islands known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korean has also escalated since South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited them in August. South Korea’s head trade negotiator said last month it would be difficult to resume talks with Japan over a free trade agreement until the issue is resolved.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry today announced that the ambassadors to China and South Korea would be replaced. Career diplomat Shinichi Nishimiya will replace Uichiro Niwa as envoy to China, while Kouro Bessho will take over from Masatoshi Muto as ambassador to South Korea, the Foreign Ministry said.

Niwa, the first private-sector appointee to become envoy to China, has been at the center of the tensions. His car was blocked and the Japanese flag attached to it ripped off by assailants last month, days after protests erupted in China following reciprocal visits to the islands by activists on both sides. He was cautioned by Noda’s government after he said Ishihara’s plan would result in an “extremely grave crisis” in bilateral ties.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry will send the head of its Asian and Oceanian affairs bureau to China today to exchange views on the bilateral dispute, Kyodo News said, without citing anyone.

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