Japan and China have stepped up their dispute over tiny islands in the East China Sea with naval muscle-flexing and diplomatic reprimands as the potent Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan's World War II defeat approaches.
Tokyo summoned the Chinese ambassador to Japan on Thursday to protest what it considered an incursion into Japanese territory when four Chinese vessels on Wednesday entered the waters around the disputed islands and remained there for 28 hours.
"This is extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable," Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, told a Tokyo press conference after the message of protest was delivered to China's acting ambassador, Han Zhiqiang.
The Chinese diplomat rejected the protest, news agencies in Tokyo reported.
The Chinese gesture asserting Beijing's claim to the islands known in China as the Diaoyus was apparently provoked by Japan's unveiling on Tuesday of its biggest warship built in the postwar era, which has been governed under a U.S.-drafted constitution that imposes a pacifist defense profile on Japan.
The $1.2-billion Izumo, capable of carrying 14 helicopters and named after a wartime vessel that took part in the invasion of China, was seen by the Chinese as a defiant nationalist display by the conservative government of Prime Minister
China and Japan have been waging rival demonstrations to lay claim to the islands, with both government and private vessel flotillas and aerial flyovers. The tit-for-tat diplomatic censures reached a crescendo last fall after the Japanese government bought three of the five disputed islands from a private owner.
The uninhabited isles are little more than rocky outcroppings but they are surrounded by rich fisheries and sit atop reportedly significant oil and gas reserves.
Thursday's testy diplomatic exchange coincided with release of an annual survey of Chinese and Japanese citizens about their perceptions of each other. The poll conducted jointly by China's state-run China Daily newspaper and the Japanese Genron NPO think tank suggested the Asian giants' opinions of each other have fallen to ominous lows. Almost 93% of Japanese surveyed have a negative attitude toward China, and more than 90% of Chinese reported an equally bad impression of the Japanese, media in both countries reported.
The adversarial mood building over the islands threatens to worsen over the next week as Thursday marks the 68th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender. Japanese officials traditionally visit shrines to the country's war dead on the occasion, including the Yasukuni memorial that counts among its honored fallen several officers convicted as war criminals by a U.S. postwar tribunal.