“We are watching closely the evolution of the situation and reserve the right to take reciprocal measures,” said Geng Yansheng, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, according to Beijing’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Japanese government officials have made the case that the purchase should do little to fray ties with Beijing; Japan’s government previously rented the land and tightly controlled it, allowing landing permission to almost nobody.
The purchase, one government spokesman said Tuesday, will ensure “stable peace and maintenance” of the land, which is also claimed by Taiwan. The uninhabited islands are significant because they occupy precious shipping lanes and may contain oil deposits.
“It’s important to avoid any misunderstanding by the Chinese government,” said the spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura.
But China has reacted with fury, and the two countries, which both view the islands as a symbol of nationalist pride, have pushed each other to a tense standoff — one that raises the potential for small-scale armed conflict, some security experts say.
To counter the Chinese ships, Japan sent a coast guard patrol vessel to the area, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday said the United States’ position on the dispute remains “that we want to see China and Japan work this through.”
A Xinhua editorial called Japan’s decision to nationalize the islands “ridiculous and absurd” and an “open provocation against China.” Sending the patrol ships from China Marine Surveillance — one of 11 loosely regulated agencies or paramilitary groups China has used in its increasingly aggressive push for control of the East China and South China seas, according to a recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group — “is timely and necessary,” the editorial continued. “The action dealt a big blow to the inflated swagger of Japan.”
The report from Brussels said the marine surveillance unit “enjoys considerable independence outside the government’s power structure” and has been involved in clashes with Philippine and Vietnamese ships.
Japan and China have conflicting narratives about the history of the islands, known in Japanese as Senkaku and Chinese as Diaoyu. Japan, which has controlled the rocky outcroppings for four decades, says China showed interest in the territory only after studies suggested a bounty of natural resources in the nearby waters. Beijing, meanwhile, says the land has been China’s since “ancient times,” discovered and named by Chinese people and appearing on Chinese maps drafted centuries ago.