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Tensions in the region were highlighted by U.S.-Japanese naval exercises that began Monday at various locations, involving about 37,400 Japanese and 10,000 U.S. troops. At the same time, Japanese and Chinese diplomats were in consultation in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the exercises are “not conducive to mutual trust in regional security.”

The near-constant presence of Chinese ships around the disputed islands has stretched the Japanese coast guard, which pulled out of a recent fleet review to free up ships for patrols.

That was a victory of sorts for Beijing’s vow to claim what it calls sacred territory, between Taiwan and Japan’s Okinawa. Taiwan also claims the islands, which were under U.S. administration after World War II before reverting to Japanese control in 1972.

Lingering resentment

Chinese outrage stems partly from lingering resentment over Japan’s brutal World War II occupation of much of China, feelings that are stoked constantly by China’s education system and state-controlled media. Control of sea lanes and potentially rich underwater minerals are also at play, along with China’s burning desire for respect as a world power.

China and Japan have no formal agreement on preventing unintended incidents at sea, making it easier for events to spin out of control as they did when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese cutter in 2010, leading to a diplomatic standoff and Chinese protests against Japan.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said last week that each side needs to be calm.

“It’s incredibly important that both countries appreciate what they have built and step back from the brink,” Mr. Campbell said.

Chinese craft entered waters near the islands for the third consecutive day Sunday, marking at least the 11th incursion in recent weeks. The Japanese coast guard has described all the incidents as routine without a risk of clashes, and said none of its ships has backed down.

However, the Chinese government said last week that its boats had performed “expulsion measures” against Japanese ships.

“Chinese law-enforcement vessels have a foothold in the waters around Diaoyu and are expanding their activities to safeguard Chinese sovereignty,” China’s stridently nationalistic Communist Party tabloid Global Times said last week.

The newspaper called that a warning to the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors to “think twice before they provoke China.”

Some scholars say China’s apparent strategy to erode Japanese control gradually through low-key actions has been abetted by a noncommittal response from Washington. The Obama administration has said it takes no stance on the islands’ sovereignty, despite recognizing its treaty obligations to back Tokyo in any conflict.

China uses a similar approach in the South China Sea, where it has maritime disputes with several other nations.

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