China has dispatched two patrol ships to the East China Sea in a show of naval strength and antagonism toward Japan after Tokyo said it had purchased a group of disputed islands from their private owners.
The Chinese government accused Tokyo of "stealing" the barren and uninhabited islets that are known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. China's aggressive response ratcheted up tensions in a long-standing conflict between the two countries over claims to the territory.
Japan's central government said it had purchased the islands for 2.05 billion yen ($26-million U.S.) from the Japanese family it recognizes as the owner. The acquisition was intended to calm China's concerns after the nationalist governor of Tokyo had proposed buying the Senkaku Islands and developing them.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement, said the purchase "cannot alter the fact the Japanese side stole the islands from China."
"If Japan insists on going its own way, it will bear all the serious consequences that follow," the ministry added.
Xinhua, China's state-run news agency and mouthpiece for the ruling Communist Party, said the dispatching of ships by the China Marine Surveillance Agency was part of a broader plan to safeguard China's sovereignty over the islands.
The nationalist fervour whipped up by Xinhua and other state media over the contested territory comes as the Chinese Communist Party is preparing for a once-in a-decade leadership transition in November. The fact that Chinese President Hu Jintao's expected successor, Xi Jinping, has cancelled a series of diplomatic meetings and has not been seen in public for a week, has not been reported in the media in China. Regardless, some have questioned whether the Chinese government is engaging in "wag the dog" tactics and diverting attention from what now seems a wobbly leadership transition.
Anti-Japanese sentiments run deep in China. Two weeks ago, the Japanese ambassador's car was attacked in Beijing. Uichiro Niwa was unhurt but the Japanese flag was ripped from his car.
Japan's recent efforts to strengthen its sovereignty over the islands has provoked demonstrations in cities across China and some attacks on Japanese businesses.