BEIJING -- China on Thursday assailed Japan's prime minister as obstinate and wrong for saying his nation won't compromise in their island dispute, as Japanese lawmakers and business leaders visited Beijing with hopes of mending ties.

Relations between Japan and China are at their lowest in years because of their spat over the island group in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Japan says it bought the islands this month to thwart Japanese nationalists' more radical plans to develop them. But China saw the move as wrecking a prior arrangement with Tokyo, and it and many Chinese have responded with outrage.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in New York on Wednesday that the islands are clearly an "inherent part of our territory, in light of history and international law." He said that issues over the islands should be resolved peacefully and by the rule of law.

In response, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday that "China is strongly disappointed and sternly opposes the Japanese leader's obstinacy regarding his wrong position." His statement repeated China's stance that Japan was ignoring historical facts and international laws.

"The country seriously challenges the postwar international order, but tries to take the rules of international law as a cover. This is self-deceiving," Qin said in a separate statement.

Senior diplomats from the two countries have met this week in New York and Beijing in an attempt to patch things over. But China still scrapped long-planned festivities scheduled this weekend to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between the countries.

Instead, Jia Qinglin, a senior Communist Party official, met with members of the China-Japan Friendship Association on Thursday. He struck a friendly note by welcoming the Japanese elder statesmen as "old friends of the Chinese people" who had worked hard to promote exchanges and cooperation in economic, political and cultural areas.

But in remarks released by the Foreign Ministry, Jia reiterated China's position on the island dispute, and said Japan's actions had "pushed China-Japan relations to an unprecedented grim phase."

Yohei Kono, a former Japanese foreign minister, referred to the strife when he told his Chinese hosts he had come to Beijing "this time with a heavy heart."

The islands, held by Japan, are tiny and uninhabited but sit astride rich fishing waters and potentially large reserves of natural gas. They are also claimed by Taiwan.

Japan's purchase of some of the islands from their private Japanese owners two weeks ago sparked sometimes-violent protests in China that targeted Japanese-owned stores and factories.

Noda defended the purchase as an attempt to ensure their "stable management," but conceded, "It seems that China has yet to understand that."

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  • Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands

    Located in the East China Sea near Taiwan and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, these remote uninhabited isles have been under Japanese control since 1895. They are seen as important because of their strategic location, and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and may be near underwater resources such as natural gas. China claims it discovered them in the 14th century. Claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. <br><em>An anti-Japan protester shouts slogans near a Chinese national flag outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, China, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)</em>

  • Dokdo, or Takeshima

    Administered by South Korea since the 1950s, these outcroppings in the Sea of Japan, called the East Sea in Korea, are inhabited only by a contingent of South Korean police. Claimed by South Korea and Japan. <br><em>South Korean protesters shout slogans during a rally against Japan's sovereignty claims over the islet of Dokdo in South Korea, which is known as Takeshima in Japan, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)</em>

  • Kuril Islands

    Located off the Russian Far East and Japan's northernmost main island, the southern Kurils were occupied by the Soviets in the closing days of World War II, and Japan before that. Four of the Russian-controlled islands, which have small military and civilian populations, are in dispute and have kept Japan and Russia from signing a formal treaty ending their wartime hostilities. They are a base for fishing operations and a rich source of crab. Claimed by Russia and Japan. <br><em>Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in front of a map of islands, known as Northern Territories in Japan and Kuril islands on February 7, 2007, in Tokyo, Japan. Held in Russia, the meeting demanded the return of the islands. (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)</em>

  • Spratly Islands

    A flashpoint in the South China Sea, they are comprised of hundreds of coral reefs, islets and atolls claimed entirely or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. <br><em>This July 20, 2011, file photo shows an aerial view of the Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. (AP Photo/Rolex Dela Pena, Pool, File)</em>

  • Paracel Islands

    About halfway between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, they are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. They are called Xisha in Chinese and Hoang Sa in Vietnamese. China and Vietnam had a conflict over them in the 1970s, and China has controlled them since then. <br><em>This July 27, 2012, photo shows an aerial view of Sansha, a city on the disputed Paracel islands, which is now considered by China as a part of the Hainan province. (STR/AFP/GettyImages)</em>