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As the U.S. was focused on celebrating the Fourth of July, tensions briefly rose across the Pacific after Japan spotted Chinese and Russian warships near the disputed East China Sea islands.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said a Chinese frigate sailed inside the “contiguous zone,” just outside Japanese territorial waters around Senkaku Islands – which Beijing also claims and calls the Diaoyu – for several minutes Monday morning.
That sighting came just 40 minutes after a Russian frigate had entered the waters for more than an hour, the ministry said.
It was not immediately clear what was behind the latest Chinese-Russian military activity in the area. Japanese defense officials mentioned a possibility that the ships may have been there to avoid a typhoon.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara said Japan lodged a protest expressing “grave concern” to Beijing over the incident.
“The Senkaku islands are an inherent part of Japan’s territory historically and under international law. The government will deal with the matter calmly but firmly to protect the Japanese land, territorial waters and air space,” Kihara said.
There was no violation of the territorial waters, he said, but noted that the Chinese incursion into the contiguous zone was a fourth such event since June 2016.
Beijing, meanwhile, criticized Tokyo’s protest and justified the frigate’s entry as “lawful and justified.”
“Japan has no right to make such irresponsible remarks,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian he said at a news conference, adding that the islands are Chinese territory.
Japan for its part views China’s increasingly assertive military activity in the East and South China seas as a threat to regional stability. Tokyo is especially sensitive to Chinese activities near the disputed islands.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.