BEIJING, April 14 -- The Chinese government responded angrily Thursday to a Japanese decision to open a disputed area of the East China Sea to exploratory drilling by Japanese companies, terming it a "provocation" that could fuel a growing dispute between the two countries.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has filed a formal protest with the Japanese government and "reserves the right to take further reaction," said Qin Gang, a ministry spokesman. He did not specify what the further action might be.
Japan's foreign minister, Nobutaka Machimura, is scheduled to visit Beijing this weekend for talks aimed at defusing the tension, and both governments have expressed a desire to solve their differences peacefully.
The decision announced Wednesday to move forward on test drilling touched a nerve in Beijing. Japan and China have been arguing for months over sovereignty in the area and, despite protests from Tokyo, Chinese oil companies have begun exploratory work not far from where the Japanese firms want to drill.
The announcement came only days after anti-Japanese demonstrations by thousands of protesters in at least three Chinese cities. The protesters shattered windows at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and damaged several Japanese-owned businesses elsewhere. Two Japanese students were roughed up.
The Japanese government demanded a formal apology, saying Chinese police failed to protect diplomatic property. The incidents sparked anti-Chinese protests in Tokyo.
Japanese officials said the decision to allow Japanese firms to explore for undersea deposits in the disputed area was not retaliation for the protests. It has been under discussion for some time, they noted. Nevertheless, going ahead now added to a list of contentious issues separating the two nations.
Japan has maintained that it is entitled to claim an exclusive economic zone east of the midway line between the Chinese and Japanese coasts. China, however, has maintained that the continental shelf should be taken into consideration, which would push the line eastward, closer to Japan.
Japan has complained that China's exploration just west of the midway line could reach into undersea deposits in Japanese-claimed waters.