BEIJING – Japanese and Taiwanese ships shot water cannon at each other Tuesday in the latest confrontation over tiny islands in the East China Sea, as Japan met with another rival, China, in an effort to tamp down tensions.
About 40 Taiwanese fishing boats and 12 patrol boats entered waters near the islands on Tuesday morning, briefly triggering an exchange of water cannon fire with Japanese coast guard ships. Coast guard officials said the Taiwanese vessels had ignored warnings to get out of their territory, and the Taiwanese ships pulled back after being fired upon.
It was Taiwan's first foray into the waters around the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, since the Japanese government purchased some of them from private owners two weeks ago. China, Japan and Taiwan all claim the islands, but they are administered by Tokyo.
The purchase has sparked sometimes violent protests in China and informal boycotts of Japanese products. Many Chinese have canceled vacations to Japan over the dispute. Japanese airline JAL says it plans to cut six flights a day from Japan to Beijing and Shanghai from Oct. 10 to 27 after the canceling of 15,500 seat reservations.
China has also dispatched government marine monitoring vessels to patrol around the islands.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Chikao Kawai, flanked by their aides, held a meeting on the dispute Tuesday at China's Foreign Ministry.
While the talks were under way, China's Cabinet, the State Council, released a white paper via the official Xinhua News Agency on the history of the islands, part of a propaganda blitz aimed at bolstering China's claim.
After the four-hour meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said both sides exchanged views "frankly and deeply" and agreed to continue discussions. He reiterated that "China will never tolerate Japan's unilateral acts which violate China's territorial sovereignty."
Japan's Kyodo news agency said Kawai told reporters at a briefing that the two sides have yet to discuss a date for the next meeting.
"Given the current situation, there were severe parts," Kawai was quoted as saying. "But I can say we both stated our thinking in a frank way."
While both governments appeared publicly to be seeking to calm tensions, gamesmanship around the islands continued Tuesday.
Japanese coast guard officials said their ships fired water cannon after the Taiwanese fishing boats and government patrol boats violated Japanese territorial waters and ignored warnings to move out. After shooting water back, the Taiwanese boats left Japanese waters, they said.
Japanese patrol boats only fired at fishing vessels, said Hideaki Takase, a coast guard official.
"Shooting water cannon at an official vessel is like waging a war against its country," he said.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou supports the "protecting Diaoyutai campaign" launched by local fishermen, and offered praise to Taiwan's coast guard for its role in escorting the Taiwanese vessels to the island area, said his spokesman, Fan Chiang Tai-chi.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Tokyo requested, through diplomatic channels, that Taiwan stop violating its waters.
"We will continue to keep our guard up to protect the area," he said. "Japan sticks to our principle that we should resolve the issue while maintaining friendly relations between Japan and Taiwan."
Chinese boats have also briefly entered the waters around the islands in recent weeks, but Japanese coast guard vessels didn't fire water cannon at them. A coast guard official said Chinese vessels usually exit the Japanese waters more quickly after warnings.
About 10 Chinese vessels are still lingering just outside the Japanese waters off the islands. The fleet size has decreased over the last few days, Japanese coast guard officials said.
"Both sides hope to see the escalation in tensions ease up because confrontation does no good to either, but so far we haven't seen any room for compromise," Liang Yunxiang, a Japan expert at Peking University, said Tuesday.