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Two Chinese surveillance ships approach contested islands

A pair of marine surveillance ships has entered waters near a group of islands disputed by China and Japan. The tiny chunks of land have frayed ties between two of the three largest economies in the world.

The Japanese coastguard and the Chinese state news agency Xinhua both reported the presence of two Chinese ships near the disputed set of islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, on Monday morning.

Japan's Foreign Ministry said it had lodged an official protest against the move with China's envoy to Japan. The government in Tokyo considers the area to be Japanese territorial waters. Japan's coastguard acknowledged the presence of a further nine vessels nearby, but said they were not in Japanese waters.

Xinhua reported that two civilian surveillance ships had entered the area for a "rights defense" control, saying such tours were designed to exercise China's "administrative jurisdiction" over the disputed series of islets.

The ships arrived one day after the government in Beijing postponed a ceremony, scheduled for Thursday, which would have marked 40 years since the former foes established diplomatic ties, citing the territorial dispute.

"In recent days, Japan has constantly provoked incidents concerning the Diaoyu islands issue, gravely violating China's territorial sovereignty," Xinhua wrote on Monday.

Japan and China have disagreed over ownership of the islands for decades, but the issue has flared in recent weeks. Pro-China activists from Hong Kong landed on one of the disputed islets in August, prompting a retaliatory appearance from Japanese protesters. Subsequently, early in September, the Japanese government agreed to purchase three of them from private owners, a move met by protests in China.

The islands lie to the south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan. The waters around them are regularly and heavily fished, they are also thought to lie close to underwater gas deposits.

msh/kms (AFP, Reuters)