Japanese and Taiwanese coast guard vessels exchanged water cannon blasts Tuesday in the East China Sea after about 40 Taiwanese fishing boats, escorted by eight Taiwanese patrol ships, entered the waters around the islands under Japanese administration.
The Taiwanese boats sailed to the disputed set of islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese to protest Japan’s recent purchase of a part of the islands from its private owner, China’s Xinhua news agency reported.
The boats assembled about 20 nautical miles away from the disputed islands early morning Tuesday and attempted to enter the islands evading the Japanese coast guards, according to Xinhua. Taiwan media reported that the boats were expected to return to a port in northeast Taiwan's Yilan County at noon Wednesday.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the coast guard used water cannon and other measures to get the Taiwan ships to change course, Reuters reported.
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"We've just lodged a protest with the Taiwan side," Fujimura was quoted as saying at a news conference. "...Our stance is that this is something that needs to be solved in the context of good bilateral ties between Japan and Taiwan. We would like to address the issue calmly."
Japan announced the signing of a contract worth 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) to buy three of the five main islands Sept. 11.
Taiwanese intrusion and the subsequent fighting, aired by Japanese public broadcaster NHK, have escalated the already existing territorial tensions involving Japan, China and Taiwan over the islands. The islands, surrounded by an area rich in fisheries and believed to contain significant hydrocarbon resources, have long been a bone of contention between the three nations.
Both Taiwan and China have laid claim to the islands since the U.N. returned them to the Japanese sovereignty in the Okinawa Reversion Agreement that ended the U.S. occupation of Okinawa in 1972. Despite the normalization of relations between China and Japan in 1972, repeated tussles involving fishing and patrol boats from China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have occurred in the past.
A reception in Beijing commemorating the 40th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations had been postponed in the wake of the tensions, Japanese news media reported. This is the first time that an official reception to commemorate the normalization of ties, held every five years, has been put off.
Xinhua said Sunday that Beijing decided to "readjust the schedule and hold the reception at an appropriate time," quoting an official of the China-Japan Friendship Association in charge of the event.
Japan's Vice Foreign Minister Chikao Kawai met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun in Beijing Tuesday in the wake of tensions between Asia's two largest economies.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Kawai was visiting at Japan's request, reported the Associated Press.
"China will urge Japan to correct their mistakes and make efforts in improving ties," he was quoted as saying.
Even as the ministers met to ease the tensions, Japan's coast guard said six Chinese surveillance ships were going in and out of the 24 nautical mile zone around the islands, news reports said.