Japan says it will mobilize its coast guard when Chinese government ships reach a disputed archipelago in the East China Sea, raising the possibility of a confrontation between the two powerful Asian nations.
In a statement given to VOA Wednesday, the Japanese foreign ministry said the coast guard mobilization will happen "when the (Chinese) ships get there, or at least come closer to" the Japanese-controlled islands.
China's official news agency Xinhua previously reported that the two China Marine Surveillance ships "reached the waters around" the islands Tuesday morning as part of a plan to assert Beijing's claim of sovereignty.
Since then, Chinese state media have been silent on the ships' movements. The Japanese foreign ministry said it cannot confirm the location of the Chinese vessels.
Xinhua's earlier report said the Chinese agency responsible for the ships would "take actions pending the development of the situation." It did not elaborate.
Japan's coast guard has confronted Chinese fisherman and nationalists in the waters of the archipelago several times in recent years.
Tokyo refers to the disputed islands as Senkaku, while Beijing calls them Diaoyu. The waters around the islands contain rich fishing grounds and potential oil reserves.
Tokyo annexed the archipelago in 1895. Beijing claimed sovereignty over the islands in 1971 and called them part of Chinese territory since ancient times.
China said it sent the government ships to the archipelago in response to the Japanese government's decision to buy some of the islands from a Japanese family that has owned them for decades. Japanese officials said Tuesday the $26 million deal was aimed at keeping the islands under "peaceful and stable maintenance."
The ultranationalist governor of Tokyo had been trying to buy the uninhabited islands since April with the aim of building structures on them. The Japanese central government has pledged to maintain the status quo.
Chinese defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said Tuesday the military is "resolutely opposed" to Japan's nationalization of the islands. He said the Chinese military was "closely watching developments ... and reserves the right to take corresponding measures."
Japanese news agency Jiji quoted "informed sources" as saying the Chinese defense ministry's statement suggests that "hardline" anti-Japanese views are "increasing" within the Chinese military.
Taiwan also claims the disputed islands. It sent a protest note to Japan about the purchase on Tuesday.
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara raised $18 million from private donations for his failed bid to buy the islands. Speaking Tuesday, he said the money will be kept in a fund until the central government agrees to his proposals to build docks and facilities for Japanese fishermen.