BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry lambasted Japan on Wednesday after a confrontation between a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Japanese coast guard vessel near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea.
"The Diaoyu Islands and attached islets have been Chinese territory since ancient times, and China has incontrovertible sovereignty over them," ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a brief statement on the ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
"Any actions taken by Japan in the seas around the Diaoyu Islands are illegal and invalid," he added, referring to the incident with the fishing boat.
China and Japan have bickered for years over the group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, which are also claimed by Taiwan.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference in Tokyo that the Japanese Coast Guard found a Taiwanese fishing boat approaching the islands and warned the boat not to enter Japanese waters.
"From the viewpoints of history and international law, there is no doubt that the Senkaku islands are our inherent territory," Edano said.
The Japanese Coast Guard could not be reached for comment.
Japan's Yomiuri newspaper said that the boat was carrying several activists calling for the assertion of Taiwan's sovereign rights over the islands, and that it left the area later on Wednesday morning.
China considers self-ruled and democratic Taiwan part of its territory, and has in the past weighed in over disputes between Taiwanese and Japanese ships around the islands.
Activists from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong periodically try and visit the seas around the islands, or even the islands themselves, to promote sovereignty claims.
In September 2010, Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain after his boat collided with Japanese coastguard ships near the isles. Beijing canceled diplomatic meetings with Tokyo in protest until he was released.
The two countries are also at odds over China's exploration for natural gas in the same seas. In 2008, they agreed to resolve the feud by jointly developing gas fields.
But progress has been slow and Japan has accused China of drilling for gas in violation of the deal.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijiing and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)