Ng Han Guan, Associated Press
BEIJING — A territorial flare-up between China and Japan intensified Tuesday as two Beijing-sent patrol ships arrived near disputed East China Sea islands in a show of anger over Tokyo's purchase of the largely barren outcroppings from their private owners.
The China Marine Surveillance has drawn up a plan to safeguard China's sovereignty of the islands and the ships were sent to assert those claims, said the Chinese government's official news agency, Xinhua. The marine agency is a paramilitary force whose ships are often lightly armed.
The rocky islands, known as Senkaku to Japanese and Diaoyu to Chinese, have been the focus of recurring spats between the countries and also are claimed by Taiwan. The China-Japan dispute has been heating up in recent months, in part because the nationalist governor of Tokyo had proposed buying the islands and developing them.
Japan's central government announced its own deal this week with the Japanese family it recognizes as the owner. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters the government budgeted 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) for the purchase "to maintain the Senkakus peacefully and stably."
Public broadcaster NHK said the government and the family signed a deal Tuesday.
The government does not plan to develop the islands. Several experts interpreted the move as an attempt to block the plan by Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, which could have raised tensions further. Ishihara also had said he hoped to visit the islands in October.
"Ishihara put the national government in a very difficult spot. He pushed them into doing this now," said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. But she said this was a "good outcome" that should be seen as an attempt by Tokyo to sideline Ishihara.
Japan cannot afford to let the dispute hinder its vital ties with China, its top trading partner, she said.
East Asian neighbors are critical to "Japan's future in a substantive way," Smith said. Tokyo needs to be able to work through "different problems with Beijing in order to make sure the economic interdependence between those two countries continues to serve both nations' needs."
Beijing, however, responded with fury, with Premier Wen Jiabao among those warning that China would never back off its claims.
China's Foreign Ministry said Monday in a statement, "If Japan insists on going its own way, it will bear all the serious consequences that follow."
Japan has claimed the islands since 1895. The U.S. took jurisdiction after World War II but turned them over to Japan in 1972. But Beijing sees the purchase as an affront to its claims and its past calls for negotiations.
Carlyle Thayer, an expert on regional security at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said China's sending of the patrol boats "ups the stakes."
"It's a tit-for-tat response because China is extremely sensitive about sovereignty matters," he said. "What is possible are the kinds of confrontations like occurred at Scarborough Shoal," a disputed reef where Chinese and Filipino boats faced off earlier this year.
"It's all posturing. It's a game of who blinks first," said Thayer.
Japan's coast guard said it has not taken any special measures in response to the Chinese patrol boats although it continues to monitor the situation.
Beijing's anger has been accompanied by heated reporting in China's state media. The tabloid Beijing Morning Post ran a full-page color photo of one of the islands with the headline: The Diaoyu Islands China's Territory. China on Tuesday also started broadcasting a daily marine weather report for the islands.
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