The Japan Coast Guard was on high alert Wednesday, a year to the day after the government nationalized the Senkaku Islands, placing the uninhabited East China Sea islets at the center of a bitter dispute with China.
Bilateral relations have soured dramatically over the past 12 months, marked by frequent confrontations between the two nations’ ships.
On Tuesday, the government said it had not ruled out stationing officials on the islets, but Beijing warned in response that Japan “must be prepared to bear the consequences of this provocation.”
“We are on high alert as today marks the first anniversary of the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands,” said Coast Guard official Yuma Miyako.
China said Tuesday it had carried out 59 “patrols” since last September, each time being warned off by Japanese ships. The two nations’ militaries have played cat and mouse in international waters and skies.
Japan says it nationalized the islets to head off a potentially explosive attempt by nationalists, including former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, to buy them, with an eye to development.
The vehemence of Beijing’s response caught the Japanese government off guard, as violent protests erupted across China and diplomatic ties frayed, badly affecting the trade relationship both countries depend on.
The change of government in Japan did little to soothe matters when hawkish nationalist Shinzo Abe was elected prime minister.
On Tuesday, Xinhua News Agency accused Abe of turning a blind eye to the nation’s “beautifying of atrocious wartime crime,” the latest in a long line of tongue-lashings Chinese state media have delivered.
Four of the eight Chinese ships that spent several hours in the islets’ territorial waters on Tuesday remained in the contiguous zone on Wednesday, Japanese officials said.
Contiguous waters are maritime zones adjacent to territorial seas where a coastal state has certain limited rights.
“We are preventing Chinese official ships from entering our territorial waters, with our ships sailing very close to the Chinese ships,” Coast Guard official Miyako said.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can evict foreign military ships that enter its territorial waters. However, he said, the rules for official ships, such as coast guards, are unclear.
“So, we are working in line with the Japanese government’s policy of demanding they stay out of our territory,” Miyako said.
On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government was “considering it as an option,” when asked if Japan would station officials on the islets, but did not elaborate.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing was “gravely concerned” by the remarks.
“China’s resolve to defend the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is firm, and we will not tolerate the Japanese side taking action to infringe China’s sovereignty,” he said.