10:39 GMT25 July 2021
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    The alleged incursion comes less than 24 hours after Tokyo ratified a major new trade agreement involving Japan, China, Australia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

    Four China Coast Guard vessels sailed into Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on Saturday morning and stayed there for several hours, the Japan Coast Guard announced.

    The service indicated that it warned the Chinese ships to leave the area after they approached four Japanese fishing boats in waters south of Uotsurijima – one of the Senkakus. The incident reportedly began in the early morning hours, with Chinese ships said to have left the area at 11:40 am local time.

    Japan's Coast Guard says Saturday’s incursion was the 22nd time that Chinese ships have violated Japanese territorial waters around the island chain.

    China has not commented on the incident.

    The People’s Republic does not recognise Japan’s sovereignty over the rock formations, and refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands.

    The dispute between the two countries over the Senkakus/Diaoyu has its origins in the late 19th century, with Tokyo occupying them in 1895, but Beijing saying that the islands were designated as Chinese territory in Japanese maps printed in 1783 and 1785. The islands are situated some 350 km from the Chinese mainland, about 170 km from the Taiwan coast, and about 915 km from the Japanese mainland island of Kyushu.

    After the Second World War, the islands were occupied by the United States before being ceded back to Japan in 1972. Authorities in China and the island of Taiwan (which China considers part of its territory) protested this decision. Tokyo nationalised the islands from a private investor in 2012, prompting Beijing to warn that it would not “sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated” while Chinese protesters held a month-long days-of-rage protest involving the burning of flags and the destruction of Japanese-made goods.

    Tokyo has repeatedly lodged protests over the presence of Chinese ships near the islands, characterising them as “unacceptable incursions,” but seemingly being unwilling to spark a military dispute with Beijing over the issue. Japan registered two dozen cases of alleged Chinese incursions its sea border near the islands, and 333 cases of Chinese ships entering Japan’s ‘contiguous zone’ during 2020. Last October, Chinese ships entered waters near the islands and stayed there for a record 57 hours before leaving.

    The Biden administration has pledged to support Japan’s claims to the Senkakus as part of a broader bid to include Japan and other Asia-Pacific nation in an anti-China coalition known as the Quad.

    Along with the China-Japan dispute, the US has also gotten itself involved in the spat between China and several Southeast Asian nations over control of the South China Sea, and has been sailing "freedom of navigation" military patrols through the body of water ever since Obama-era secretary of state Hillary Clinton called the issue “a matter of US national interest.”

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