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China to go ahead with naval exercise amid East China Sea island dispute with Japan

Beijing China said Wednesday that its navy will proceed with a deep-water training exercise amid a continuing spat with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea that has sparked regular confrontations between patrol boats from each side.

The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the previously scheduled exercise would take place in the coming days in the Pacific, beyond where the islands are located, and where deep waters are ideal for anti-submarine drills.

The navy, which last year launched China's first aircraft carrier, held seven such drills last year, each involving a half-dozen or more surface ships and an unknown number of submarines. The exercises reflect China's long-held aspirations to build a navy that can operate far from its shores.

Ships taking part in such exercises before have passed just north of the disputed islands, which lie midway between Taiwan and the Japanese island of Okinawa. Training takes place farther out to sea, although the exact location is not announced.

Separately, the official Xinhua News Agency said three ships — a missile destroyer and two missile frigates — departed from the eastern port of Qingdao on Tuesday for exercises in the western Pacific. Citing unidentified sources, it said the ships would conduct 20 different drills simulating combat, navigation, and law enforcement operations.

Xinhua said the training area would include the Yellow, East China and South China seas, as well as areas north, south and east of Taiwan. Although that comprises a huge swathe of ocean off the Chinese coast, the report did not specifically mention the disputed islands.

Both sides recently have scrambled jet fighters and confronted each other's patrol boats in waters surrounding the uninhabited rocks, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

With fears rising over a clash — either accidental or intentional — Japan has in recent weeks launched diplomatic efforts to ease tensions. On Tuesday, China-friendly ex-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama met with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi for what the ministry described as friendly talks.

China-Japan relations are at a "critical phase," spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.

"The two sides should ... take a responsible attitude toward history, properly handle the Diaoyu islands issue, and work toward improving and developing China-Japan relations," Hong said.

Although China has called repeatedly for dialogue on the issue, it has yet to send an envoy to Japan or respond to Tokyo's proposal for a summit between their leaders. That is at least in part due to Japan's rejection of Beijing's demand that it recognize that the islands' sovereignty is in dispute.

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