BEIJING — China’s top defense chief said Tuesday that the communist nation’s leaders “reserve rights for further actions” in asserting China’s claim to a small chain of islands recently purchased by Japan, but he added that he hopes peaceful negotiations will resolve the dispute.
Gen. Liang Guanglie, head of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department, made his comments during a visit by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who said Monday in Tokyo that territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region easily could spiral into war.
The Chinese general blamed Japan for the recent escalation in tensions between the two countries over ownership of the islands — which are called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. Riotous protests have erupted across China protesting Japan’s purchase of the islands that China claims to have owned for hundreds of years before the Japanese.
“As I discussed with Secretary Panetta in previous discussions, China placed Diaoyu Island into its coastal defense as early as in Ming Dynasty, which is about 14th to 15th century, and it’s only after  to 500 years later that Japan illegally occupied the island during the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894 to about 1895,” Gen. Liang said Tuesday at a joint news conference with Mr. Panetta.
“The Japanese side should bear the full responsibility for the current escalation of the dispute,” the general said.
Anti-Japan protests took place Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, the Associated Press reported, as China marked the 81st anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria — the start of a brutal occupation of China that ended only at the close of World War II.
Outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, thousands of protesters shouted patriotic slogans and demanded boycotts of Japanese goods. Some burned Japanese flags and threw apples, water bottles and eggs at the embassy, which was heavily guarded by three layers of paramilitary police and metal barricades.
China’s authoritarian government rarely allows protests, and the wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations clearly received a degree of official approval, the AP reported.
During his visit to Asia, Mr. Panetta has urged China and Japan to exercise restraint in their dispute over the islands. The main purpose of his visit is to further the U.S. military’s “pivot” to the region and advance U.S.-China military-to-military cooperation, following Gen. Liang’s visit to the Pentagon in May.
Gen. Liang and Mr. Panetta described their conversation as candid and friendly, and said they discussed several issues, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, territorial claims, space exploration and cyberspace.
Mr. Panetta noted that the U.S. and China this week participated in a “very successful” counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden, and announced that the U.S. Navy invited China to send a ship in 2014 to participate in the biennial U.S.-hosted international military exercises in the Pacific.
Despite the leaders’ display of bonhomie, questions remain about each country’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region.
Prompted by an American reporter’s question, Gen. Liang defended China’s decadelong increase in military spending, saying it is not aimed at facilitating aggressive action against its neighbors. He said the increase in military spending has been commensurate with growth in China’s economy, now second only to the U.S.
“Our position is not contradictory at all,” the defense secretary said. “Our purpose in being able to strengthen our presence in this region is to promote greater prosperity, to promote greater security in the Asia-Pacific region.