Asia's two economic giants Japan and China squared off against each other over a chain of disputed islands and a visit to a controversial shrine to Japanese war dead that angers many in China and other parts of the continent.
Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe upped the ante in a simmering territorial row with Beijing by vowing to expel any Chinese who attempt to land on the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China.
The warning, issued after China’s latest incursion into Japan’s territorial waters, is the first time Mr Abe has threatened to use force since Japan controversially nationalised the string of islands last September, which lie about 1,800 km southwest of Tokyo.
“We would take decisive action against any attempt to enter our territorial waters and to land,” Mr Abe told parliament yesterday.
“It would be natural for us to expel by force the Chinese if they were to make a landing.”
Japan's coast guard said earlier that eight Chinese patrol ships had entered waters near the islands yesterday, the latest episode in a long-running game of cat and mouse. The incursion is the largest since the dispute began.
For its part, China’s ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua protested Japan’s intrusion into waters around the islands and demanded that all Japanese ships leave the waters immediately, according to a report by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
China's State Oceanic Administration said the Chinese vessels had driven Japanese fishing boats out of waters surrounding the Diaoyu islands, "thwarting the attempts of Japanese right wingers", the agency said on its website.
Mr Abe said ignoring the incursions would encourage the conflict to escalate.“The correct approach is to respond physically to show our strong will that we will absolutely not let them make land.”
He had vowed to toughen Japan’s stance on the islands before taking office last November but has so far avoided a confrontational approach, despite pressure from conservatives to send self-defence force troops to the area.
A flotilla of Japanese nationalists arrived in seas off the islands yesterday, raising the threat of clashes with Chinese boats. Members of the same group landed on the largest of the islands last year and planted Japanese flags, triggering furious protests in China.
Japan’s spokesman Yoshihide Suga called the latest incursion “extremely deplorable and unacceptable”.
Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged Japan to adhere to its commitments.