On Tuesday morning Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, confirmed his country had agreed to purchase the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from a Japanese family it claims owns them.
Media reports in Japan said the government would pay a total of 2.05 billion yen (£16.4 million) for the islands and that the transfer of their ownership would be completed by the end of this month.
Simultaneously, China’s state-controlled news agency Xinhua reported that two Chinese surveillance vessels had arrived in the region on Tuesday to “assert the country’s sovereignty”. Japanese media said the Japanese Coast Guard was monitoring the vessels.
The Prince has been asked by the Foreign Office to visit China following his four-month deployment to Afghanistan which began last week.
A visit by a senior member of the royal family would be a major diplomatic boost for Britain’s relationship with China.
Tensions have recently escalated between the two countries following the Government and the royal family’s ongoing dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and critic of the Chinese regime, and the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood by the wife of the prominent Chinese politician Bo Xilai.
The Prince of Wales is seen as having a troubled relationship with China, which he has never visited. But he has recently attempted to improve relations with the Chinese, establishing the Prince’s Charities Foundation (China) in 2009 in Beijing, which promotes his interests including traditional architecture, the arts, the environment and alternative health.
International efforts to halt the violence are deadlocked because Russia and China, which wield vetoes in the UN Security Council, have blocked tougher action against Assad. They say the solution must come through political dialogue, an approach most of the Syrian opposition rejects.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin had shifted his view of Assad during talks with Obama and other world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, and that discussions were now focused on a transition of power in Syria.
But Putin immediately seemed to contradict that notion, telling reporters at the end of the summit: “We believe that nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be brought to power, who should be removed from power.”
Russia has been the staunchest backer of Assad and his military crackdown against militants and protesters in Syria, including supplying arms to the Syrian government.
World powers are groping to find a way to end the bloodshed in Syria with the toll growing daily despite a ceasefire that should have gone into effect from April 12, and there are reports of children being used as human shields.
China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, has repeatedly opposed foreign intervention in Syria, and has urged both sides in the conflict to implement UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
“China expresses its great concern over the development of the situation in Syria. We believe the situation in Syria is at a critical juncture,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told journalists.
“We hope parties in Syria can do everything they can to protect civilians.”
Activists say 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said this week he believed Syria was now in a civil war.
A statement from Liu Weimin, the Chinese’s foreign ministry spokesman, said Beijing “strongly condemns” the deaths of innocent civilians and calls for the perpetrators to be punished.
Developments in Syria make Mr Annan’s efforts more, not less, important, Liu added.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, warned the United Nations Security Council on Thursday that full-blown civil war in Syria was “imminent,” and Annan said it was time to step up the pressure on Damascus to halt the violence. China has repeatedly said it opposes external intervention in Syria.
UN observers have come under fire as they tried to reach the site of the latest reported mass killing in Syria – about 80 people, including women and children who were shot or stabbed. The deaths added urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the escalating bloodshed.
As reports emerged on Thursday of what would be the fourth such mass slaying of civilians in Syria in the last two weeks, the United States condemned President Bashar Assad, saying he has “doubled down on his brutality and duplicity.”
Opposition groups have blamed pro-government militia for the deaths of at least 86 people and possibly up to 100 in Hama province, many of them women and children.
Syrian state TV said troops found some bodies after attacking “terrorists”.
Speaking during a visit to Norway, Mr Cameron said the massacre was further proof that the Assad regime was “completely illegitimate and cannot stand”.
In a clear message to Russia and China, which have blocked international action against Assad, the Prime Minister said the whole world should show that it wants a transition to a new regime in Damascus.
The renewed support by Moscow and Beijing for the Damascus regime came as numerous Western nations, including the United States, Britain and France, expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of Friday’s massacre and after France floated the idea of armed intervention to protect civilians.
“China opposes military intervention in Syria and opposes regime change by force,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing.
Liu added that China urged all parties to implement UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s ceasefire proposal in Syria and to seek to end the bloody crisis through negotiations.
With Russian and Chinese support, the UN Security Council on Sunday strongly condemned the Syrian government for using artillery in a massacre in the central town of Houla in which at least 108 people were killed.
But Russia, which along with China has vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions highly critical of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, on Wednesday said it was “premature” for the council to consider new action.