Japan Says an Armed Chinese Vessel Entered Its Waters for the First Time

China Coast Guard vessel No. 31239 sails in the East China Sea near the disputed isles known as Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in this handout photo taken and released by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters-Japan Coast Guard December 22, 2015. REUTERS/11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters-Japan Coast Guard
China Coast Guard vessel No. 31239 sails in the East China Sea near the disputed isles known as Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in this handout photo taken and released by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters-Japan Coast Guard December 22, 2015. REUTERS/11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters-Japan Coast Guard

By Yuji Nakamura

(Bloomberg) — An armed Chinese government ship was one of three vessels that entered Japan’s territorial waters near disputed islands Saturday, a Japanese Coast Guard official said. This is the first time that an armed vessel has come into the area Japan’s claims as its territory, the official said.

The vessels approached waters north of Kuba Island from around 8:19 a.m. local time, entering Japanese territorial waters starting from 9:30 a.m. and left by 10:50 a.m., according to e-mailed coast guard statements. The armed vessel was the same one that the coast guard reported on Dec. 22 was sailing in waters 28 kilometers (17 miles) east-north-east of one of the islands, according to the official, who declined to be named, citing government policy.

Kuba Island is among East China Sea islands whose sovereignty is disputed by Japan and China. Ships from both nations have been tailing one another in the area since Japan bought three of the uninhabited islands from a private owner in 2012. The dispute is among the biggest diplomatic issues between the two nations. The islands are known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

When Japan’s coast guard warned the Chinese to leave its territorial waters Saturday, they responded by saying that the Japanese vessel was in Chinese waters and should leave immediately, Kyodo reported. One of the vessels was armed with an auto-cannon, Kyodo said. This is the 35th time this year that vessels of the Chinese government have entered Japan’s territorial waters, according to Kyodo.

Japan’s cabinet approved a record defense budget Dec. 24 amid China’s increasing military activity in the region.

The 5.1 trillion yen ($42 billion) package is an increase of 1.5 percent from the current fiscal year ending March, marking the fourth straight annual gain under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It accounts for just over 5 percent of the overall 96.7 trillion yen budget for next fiscal year, also approved Dec. 24.

While Abe has denied Japan will send maritime forces to back up U.S. navigation exercises in the South China Sea, he’s said he supports the freedom-of-navigation operations that are challenging China’s claims to one of the world’s busiest waterways.

–With assistance from Andy Sharp.

©2015 Bloomberg News