China says ships from its new coastguard confronted Japanese patrol vessels yesterday in waters surrounding East China Sea islands claimed by both sides.
The State Oceanic Administration that oversees the service said four of its ships "sternly declared" China's sovereignty over the islands - called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyus by China - and demanded they leave the area.
The uninhabited archipelago is controlled by Tokyo, but also claimed by Beijing.
Ships from Chinese civilian agencies have maintained a steady presence in the area since tensions rose in September after Japan bought three of the islands from private owners.
Those civilian vessels are being replaced by ships from the coastguard, which was formally inaugurated on Monday and merges the resources of four agencies.
The coastguard gives Beijing greater latitude to patrol its claims by centralising operations. It is nominally under civilian control, but closely co-ordinates with the increasingly formidable Chinese navy that recently added an aircraft carrier.
Japan has already expressed renewed unease about China's military and maritime activity near the disputed islands.
Yesterday, it released a defence paper calling for an increase in its surveillance capability, possibly including the use of drones capable of wide-range, high-altitude monitoring.
In Singapore yesterday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated he wanted a summit with his Chinese counterparts. "There should be a summit meeting and also a foreign ministers' meeting as soon as possible … such meetings should be held without pre-conditions," he said.
China reacted coolly to Abe's call, saying the onus for better relations rested with Tokyo.
Japan scrambled jets on Wednesday to keep watch on a Chinese Y-8 early warning plane flying over international waters between Japan's southern Okinawa island and an outer island relatively close to the disputed area.
China's Defence Ministry defended the right of its aircraft to operate in the area.
Associated Press, Reuters