BEIJING -- China said Tuesday it has sent surveillance ships to waters near three islands at the center of a dispute with Japan, one day after Tokyo announced plans to purchase the uninhabited territories.
The official New China News Agency said the two patrol boats were sent to "assert the country's sovereignty" over the islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
The paramilitary ships are operated by the China Marine Surveillance, the country's coast guard. State media said the maritime agency had "drafted an action plan for safeguarding the sovereignty and would take actions pending the development of the situation."
There was no immediate response from Tokyo, which said Monday it had made a deal with Japanese landowners to buy the islands southwest of Okinawa. The plan had been championed by Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and a strident nationalist.
The dispatching of Chinese ships is certain to heighten tensions between the two governments. Beijing has issued a barrage of stern warnings to Tokyo in recent days over the island dispute.
Chinese state media reported Monday that President Hu Jintao told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, Russia, that any attempt by Japan to buy the territories would be considered illegal and invalid.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement Monday saying the islands have been "sacred territory" to China since ancient times, adding: "Long gone are the days when the Chinese nation was subject to bullying and humiliation from others. The Chinese government will not sit idly by watching its territorial sovereignty being infringed upon."
Dozens of protesters reportedly gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday.
The islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan, are believed to be located near rich natural gas deposits.
-- David Pierson
Photo: China, Japan and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the chain of three small islands, which Japan calls Senkaku and which China calls Daioyu. Credit: Getty Images