Japan brushed off warnings by China and bought
a group of islands on Tuesday that both claim, in a growing dispute that
threatens ties 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.
Tokyo insisted that it had only peaceful
intentions in making the 2.05 billion yen 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 standard 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.
The long-running territorial dispute flared
again last month after Japan detained a group of Chinese activists who had
landed on the islands.
But the row appears to be having an economic
impact, with a Chinese official saying Japanese car sales in the world's
biggest auto market may have been hit.
Chinese President Hu Jintao's warned at the
weekend against the purchase, which he called "illegal". On Tuesday
Taiwan, which also claims the territory recalled its representative to Japan in
protest against the deal.
The news triggered small-scale protests in
front of the tightly-guarded Japanese embassy in Beijing. Microbloggers on
China's popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo also reported small
anti-Japanese protests in the eastern city of Weihai and the southwestern city
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in an
address to senior military officers, made no direct reference to the islands
dispute, but pointed to China's growing military clout as one of challenges
Japan had to contend with.
"We have North Korea launching missiles
under the name of satellites and conducting a nuclear programme, China
expanding its military might and continuing vigorous activities in regional
waters and Russia also boosting its activities in the Far East," Noda
The foreign ministry said it is sending its
Asia department chief to Beijing on Tuesday for talks to "avoid
misunderstanding and lack of explanation on the issue."
The government bought three out of five islets
that it has been leasing from the Kurihara family, which itself bought the
islands in 1972 from another Japanese family that had controlled them since the
1890s. The government has owned one of the remaining islets and continues to
lease one from the Kurihara family.
Noda floated the plan to buy the islets in July
to head off what appeared to be a much more provocative bid by Tokyo governor
Shintaro Ishihara, a harsh critic of China, to purchase them and make the islands
available for development.
But Beijing, at least in public, has repeatedly
warned against the government purchase.
On Tuesday, People's Liberation Army Daily said
in a commentary that Japan was playing with fire. Xinhua news agency reported
two patrol vessels were heading into waters surrounding the islands.
The Japanese Coast Guard could not confirm the
Relations between the Asian powers, plagued by
Japan's wartime occupation of parts of China and present rivalry over regional
clout, have been difficult for years. But economic ties are stronger than ever
and both countries are believed to want to keep the feud from spiralling out of
By Reuters, September 11, 2012