China ships pay first visit to disputed Diaoyu islands after Xi-Abe meeting

TOKYO (AFP) - Chinese ships returned to territorial waters around islands at the centre of a dispute with Japan on Tuesday, the coastguard said, the first incursion since a Sino-Japanese summit aimed at reducing tensions.

Three Chinese coastguard vessels sailed into the 12-nautical-mile zone around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyus, shortly after 10am (9am Singapore time), the Japanese coastguard said. They left two hours later.

China's State Oceanic Administration said in a statement on its website that Chinese coastguard vessels "patrolled Chinese territorial waters near the Diaoyu islands today".

The move has become a familiar one over the last two years as Asia's largest economies squabbled over the ownership of the uninhabited chain, but had not happened since a meeting on Nov 10 between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised hopes of a detente.

True to form, both sides were hailing the other to warn them to leave the area, the Japanese coastguard spokesman said.

Relations between Japan and China have been in deep freeze over the ownership of the islands and what Beijing views as Japan's rewriting of history - especially concerning World War II.

After his meeting with Xi, Abe said: "Japan and China, we need each other."

The get-together on November 10 during the Apec Summit in Beijing was seen as a symbolic first step toward reconciliation, but one that was short on details.

Chinese ships last entered the islands' territorial waters on November 3, the Japanese coastguard said.