Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe has warned China that his country will respond with force if any attempt is made to land on disputed island.
The Japanese prime minister’s comments came as eight Chinese government ships sailed near East China Sea islands that both nations claim.
A flotilla of 10 fishing boats carrying Japanese activists was also reported to be in the area, as well as the Japanese coastguard.
Shinzo Abe was speaking in parliament hours after dozens of lawmakers visited a controversial war-linked shrine.
A total of 168 lawmakers paid their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, including war criminals, in a move likely to anger regional neighbors who say the shrine is a reminder of Japan’s military past.
The warning from the Japanese prime minister was the most explicit to China since Shinzo Abe took power in December.
Asked in parliament what he would do if Chinese ships tried to land on the disputed islands, Shinzo Abe said they would be expelled by force.
Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe has warned China that his country will respond with force if any attempt is made to land on disputed island
“Since it has become the Abe government, we have made sure that if there is an instance where there is an intrusion into our territory or it seems that there could be landing on the islands then we will deal will it strongly,” he said.
The warning came as eight Chinese ships sailed around the islands – called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The Japanese coast guard said it was the highest number of Chinese boats in the area since Tokyo nationalized part of the island chain in September 2012.
China said its ships had been monitoring Japanese vessels. The State Oceanic Administration issued a statement saying three of its ships had “found” several Japanese ships around the islands and “immediately ordered another five ships in the East China Sea to meet the three ships”.
Ten Japanese boats carrying around 80 activists arrived in the area early on Tuesday, Reuters news agency reported, monitored by Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Public broadcaster NHK said the boats were carrying “regional lawmakers and members of the foreign media”.
Japan’s top government spokesman said the “intrusion into territorial waters” was “extremely regrettable”. Japan also summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest, reports said.
The territorial row has been rumbling for years but was reignited last year when Japan bought three of the islands from their private Japanese owner.
China claims the island chain, which is controlled by Japan. Taiwan also claims the islands, which offer rich fishing grounds and lie in a strategically important area.
The dispute has led to serious diplomatic tension between China and Japan, most recently in January when Japan said a Chinese frigate locked weapons-controlling radar on one of its navy ships near the islands – something China disputes.
The visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Tuesday by lawmakers marking the spring festival is also likely to hit ties between Beijing and Tokyo.
Two cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, visited the shrine on Sunday. PM Shinzo Abe did not visit but made a ritual offering.
South Korea subsequently cancelled a proposed visit by its foreign minister, while China lodged “solemn representations” in response to the ministers’ visit.
“Only when Japan faces up to its aggressive past can it embrace the future and develop friendly relations with its Asian neighbors,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday.
But Japanese lawmaker Hidehisa Otsujji said it was “natural” for “lawmakers to worship at a shrine for people who died for the nation”.
“Every nation does this. I don’t understand why we get a backlash,” he said.
Japan has accused China of violating its airspace for the first time after a Chinese government plane flew near disputed East China Sea islands.
Fighter jets were scrambled after the plane was seen around 11:00 local time near one of the islands, spokesman Osamu Fujimura said.
Japan lodged an immediate protest with Beijing, he said.
The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have been a long-standing source of tension.
A total of eight F-15 fighters were sent after reports of the presence of the plane, which belong to China’s State Oceanic Administration – a state body tasked with law enforcement in Chinese waters.
Japan’s defence ministry said it was the first intrusion into Japan’s air space by a Chinese government aircraft since the military began keeping records, public broadcaster NHK reported.
Last year, Japan said two Chinese military planes flew near the area, but did not enter the country’s airspace.
Osamu Fujimura called the incident “extremely deplorable”, saying it followed a report from the coast guard that Chinese surveillance ships had also been seen in waters near the islands earlier in the day.
“It is extremely regrettable that, on top of that, an intrusion into our airspace has been committed in this way,” he said.
The Chinese ambassador in Tokyo had been summoned to hear a formal Japanese protest, he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, however, said during a regular news briefing that the plane’s flight was “completely normal”.
“The Diaoyu islands and affiliated islands are part of China’s inherent territory,” he said.
“The Chinese side calls on Japan to halt all entries into water and airspace around the islands.”
Japan controls the islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan. Close to strategically important shipping lanes, the waters around the islands also offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain oil deposits.
The dispute over their ownership has rumbled for years but the Japanese government’s acquisition of three of the islands from their private Japanese owner in September sparked a renewed row, triggering a diplomatic chill and public protests in some Chinese cities.
Since then Chinese ships have been sailing in and out of waters around the islands, prompting warnings from Japan.
It is not clear whether this is a move by the Chinese side to escalate the dispute, or a one-off event designed to remind Japan of unsettled history.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Nanjing massacre, where Japanese troops killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians in China’s old capital, Nanjing, in 1937.
The incident also comes days before a Japanese general election thought likely to result in a change of government in Tokyo.
Six Chinese surveillance ships have entered waters near islands claimed by both Japan and China.
China said the ships were carrying out “law enforcement” to demonstrate its jurisdiction over the islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
At least two of the vessels left after the Japanese coast guard issued a warning, Japanese officials say.
The move came after Japan sealed a deal to buy three of the islands from their private Japanese owner.
Japan controls the uninhabited but resource-rich East China Sea islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan.
Six Chinese surveillance ships have entered waters near islands claimed by both Japan and China
The Japanese Coast Guard said the first two Chinese boats entered Japan’s territorial waters at 06:18 local time, followed by another fleet of four other ships just after 07:00.
The first two ships then left the area. A third ship left later on Friday morning, one report said. No force was used, Japanese officials added.
“Our patrol vessels are currently telling them to leave our country’s territorial waters,” the coastguard said in a statement.
The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that its ships were there.
“These law enforcement and patrol activities are aimed to demonstrate China’s jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands and its affiliated islets and ensure the country’s maritime interests,” a statement said.
The US has called for ”cooler heads to prevail” as tension intensifies between China and Japan over the islands, which lie south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is due to visit both Japan and China from this weekend as part of a tour of the region that also includes New Zealand.
The dispute has seriously marred diplomatic relations between China and Japan and threatens to damage the strong trading relationship.
The row has also generated strong nationalist sentiment on both sides that observers say now makes it very difficult to be seen to be backing down.
The Japanese government says it is buying the islands to promote their stable and peaceful management.
Its move followed a bid by right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to buy the islands using public donations – an action that would likely have further provoked China.
China, on the other hand, says the islands have historically been its territory and fishing grounds.
Meanwhile Japan’s newly-appointed ambassador to China, Shinichi Nishimiya, remains in hospital in Tokyo after he was found unconscious near his home in Tokyo on Thursday.
No details have been given on his condition. He was appointed on Tuesday to replace Uichiro Niwa, who has been criticized for his handling of one of the worse diplomatic rows between Japan and China in recent years.
Japan-China disputed islands:
• The archipelago consists of five islands and three reefs
• Japan, China and Taiwan claim them; they are controlled by Japan and form part of Okinawa prefecture
• The Japanese government signed a deal in September 2012 to purchase three islands from Japanese businessman Kunioki Kurihara, who used to rent them out to the Japanese state
• The islands were the focus of a major diplomatic row between Japan and China in 2010