A lawmaker from Japan’s ruling party was aboard one of four fishing boats that sailed yesterday for islands at the centre of a bitter dispute with China, the organiser said, as Chinese vessels loomed nearby.
Japan’s national broadcaster said one of the Chinese maritime surveillance ships had been within a kilometre of the fishing boats, in an incident that could further increase tensions.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Brunei, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi passed each other outside a meeting room without speaking, the Kyodo News agency reported.
There was no attempt by anyone on board the Japanese vessels to land on any of the islands, which Japan controls as the Senkakus, but which China claims as the Diaoyus.
“The purpose of dispatching the fishing boats is to fish in the waters,” an official from the nationalist Channel Sakura satellite broadcaster said, adding the company’s president was aboard one of the boats.
“Most of the people on this mission are fishermen,” he said, but noted that Kenji Yamada, a parliamentarian and member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party had also taken part in the mission.
The Japanese boats had left the area by the afternoon, he said.
The incident passed off without confrontation but marked a change from recent months, which have seen regular forays by official Chinese ships into the 12-nautical-mile zone regarded as territorial waters.
It has become customary for Japan’s coastguard and the Chinese ships to exchange demands that the other side leave the waters, as part of a tussle between Tokyo and Beijing over ownership of the resource-rich islands.
A Japanese foreign ministry official telephoned the Chinese embassy in Tokyo to protest at the presence of the Chinese vessels, the ministry said.
The four boats made a circuit of the largest island in the chain before heading away, Japan’s coastguard said.
A territorial row that dates back four decades reignited last September when Tokyo nationalised three islands in the chain, in what it said was a mere administrative change of ownership.
But the incident provoked fury in Beijing, which maintains the Senkakus were illegally snatched by Japan as it built an empire in the half-century before the second world war.
Separately, the Japanese coastguard said a Bahamas-registered marine research vessel, Discoverer2, was in the exclusive 200-nautical-mile economic zone (EEZ) of the islands.
The ship, believed to belong to a Chinese oil company, had been spotted in the zone twice already this year and had been seen lowering wires into the water, a coastguard official said.
“In response to our warnings, the vessel’s crew say it is operating with the approval of the Chinese government as the area is part of China’s EEZ,” he said.