Five boats carrying about 20 members of a Japanese nationalist group arrived on Sunday in waters near tiny islands in the East China Sea at the center of a dispute between Japan and China, a move that risks escalating tensions between the two nations.

Members of the Ganbare Nippon ("Stand Firm, Japan") group said they did not plan to land on the uninhabited islands, which are known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, but wanted to send a message to China.

We won't be doing anything extreme but we need to show the Chinese what we're made of

Satoru Mizushima, Japanese nationalist and film-maker 

"We want to show these islands are under Japanese control," Satoru Mizushima, the film-maker who leads Ganbare Nippon, told activists before departure late on Saturday from a port in Okinawa. "We won't be doing anything extreme but we need to show the Chinese what we're made of."

The islands are located near rich fishing grounds and potentially large oil and gas reserves.

The Ganbare Nippon ships were surrounded by about 10 Japanese coast guard vessels when they approached within 1 nautical mile of the islands on Sunday morning. Coast guard crews in rubber boats urged them to leave through loud speakers.

Last week, Chinese patrol boats entered Japanese territorial waters and stayed there for more than 24 hours, the longest since surveillance around the islands was increased after Japan's government purchased several of them from a private owner in September last year.

Chinese and Japanese planes and patrol vessels have been playing cat-and-mouse near the islands, raising concerns that an unintended incident could escalate into a military clash.

Last August, activists from Hong Kong landed on one of the disputed islands and were detained by Japanese authorities before being deported.

That incident triggered a wave of protests across China that grew larger after Japan's then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda agreed to buy three of the islands from a private landowner. By buying the islands, Noda had intended to prevent friction by thwarting a rival bid from a nationalist politician.

Source: Agencies