China said Monday that it plans to use unmanned drones to conduct marine surveillance by 2015 as it tries to increase its presence around uninhabited East China Sea islands at the centre of a dispute with Japan.
While still years away, the planned deployment comes as relations between the sides continue to be roiled by fury in China over the Japanese government's purchase of the islands this month from their private Japanese owners.
As part of efforts to contain the fallout, Japan on Monday dispatched a vice foreign minister to meet with his Chinese counterpart for talks on the state of relations between the countries.
Li Mousheng, a spokesman for China's State Oceanic Administration, said the decision to deploy drones followed a successful test Sunday. He offered no details on the test, but cited state media reports that said China aims to have drones and monitoring bases in place by 2015.
The reports didn't say when the drones would be deployed around the islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. China has been aggressively developing unmanned aircraft for both civilian and military purposes, with missions ranging from guiding missile strikes to monitoring grain crops.
Chinese outrage over the Japanese government's purchase of the islands sparked days of sometimes violent street protests in scores of cities around China. Numerous informal boycotts of Japanese products have been launched and China has dispatched government marine monitoring vessels to patrol around the islands.
Taiwan, which has an overlapping claim, has registered a formal protest. On Monday, several dozen Taiwanese fishing boats set out for the islands from the east coast port of Suao in what was being termed an apolitical protest to protect access to traditional fishing grounds.