Beijing may be testing the patience of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has recently kept his hawkish streak in check as he instead focuses on domestic economic measures.

On Monday and Tuesday, four Chinese maritime survey ships stayed inside Japan’s territorial waters around the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea for more than 13 hours, the longest Chinese intrusion since September, drawing another strong protest from Tokyo.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the lengthy intrusion “extremely abnormal” and said the government lodged a “even stronger” protest with China over the repeated violations by its government ships into the territorial waters around the islets, which are claimed by Beijing, where the islets are known as the Diaoyu.

“We have repeatedly lodged protests through diplomatic channels and demanded that the ships exit, but they roamed” inside Japan’s territorial waters, Suga told reporters Tuesday. “(The intrusion) is extremely abnormal and very regrettable.”

But when asked if Japan plans to take any tougher action to guard the nation’s claim to the uninhabited islets other than having Japan Coast Guard ships cruise next to the Chinese vessels, Suga just said Tokyo will firmly deal with the situation and demanded restraint by Beijing.

Later the same day, Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua and lodged a formal protest, demanding that Beijing “never repeat” similar incursions. Cheng said he could not accept the protest and would convey the statement to Beijing, the Foreign Ministry said.

The hawkish Abe had once argued that Tokyo should station government officials on the Senkakus, an action that could be seen as militarily provocative.

But he has recently dialed down the rhetoric and not mentioned tough actions to defend the Senkakus while he pursues domestic economic remedial measures with an eye to the July Upper House election, which he hopes his ruling Liberal Democratic Party will be able to re-establish a majority in the chamber and hence have a clearer public mandate for his policies.

The four Chinese ships entered Japanese waters between 11:02 a.m. and 11:43 a.m. Monday and exited at 12:32 a.m. Tuesday.

Since the Japanese government nationalized the islets in September, China has repeatedly sent government ships near the Senkakus, and even sent a government aircraft over the islets, each intrusion drawing strong protests from Tokyo.

Japan first took control of the Senkakus in 1895 and Japanese lived on the islets from 1897 to 1940. It wasn’t until 1971 that Beijing suddenly started to also claim the islets, alleging Japan stole them in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War.

The U.S. seized the islets after Japan’s 1945 World War II surrender and returned them along with Okinawa in 1972.

Abe to Southeast Asia

JIJI, kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering visiting Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia as early as next week, sources said Monday.

Abe abandoned his plan to make the United States his first foreign destination since taking office last month, the source said, adding that the trip would have helped underscore his determination to strengthen the two nations’ alliance.

On Dec. 28, soon after his inauguration, Abe spoke by phone with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, as well as with the leaders of Britain, Australia, India and Russia.

In the talks with the Southeast Asian leaders, Abe said Tokyo hopes to strengthen cooperation in response to the expansion of China’s maritime activities in waters off its neighboring nations.

Abe chose Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia for his first foreign visit after problems arose on the U.S. side arranging a trip to Washington, the sources said.

The Japanese leader is considering attending a ceremony in Jakarta on Jan. 18 to mark the 40th anniversary of Japan’s exchanges with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

With Japan facing an increasing challenge from China over its control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Abe also hopes to enhance cooperation with Vietnam, which has a dispute with China over South China Sea islands.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida meanwhile said Tuesday he will visit the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia for six days from Wednesday in his first trip overseas since assuming his post in late December.

Kishida aims to consult with his counterparts over maritime cooperation as China grows increasingly assertive in its territorial and other regional claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

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