China, Japan Fated for Conflict?

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Following is a guest entry from James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.

The East China Sea has seen two more tense incidents involving Japan and China in the past couple of weeks. But is this proof that these fractious neighbours are heading towards a state of perpetual tension?

Perhaps. But maybe this is only to be expected.

The first incident, in which Japan Air Self-Defence Force F-15J fighters intercepted Chinese Y-8 surveillance planes about 30 kilometres from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, looks like a Chinese ploy to test Japan's reflexes.

The second, in which a Chinese State Oceanic Administration helicopter flew to within 70 metres of Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer Samidare (DD-106), was the diplomatic equivalent of flipping the bird.

That it took place in the Shirakaba/Chunxiao gas field, where cooperation between the two countries has stalled since last September's incident near the Senkaku islands, suggests that friction between the two will continue to occur when and where their interests collide. Tokyo says Chinese drilling could be extracting gas from under its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

But back on the surface, neither incident changes relations damaged by the clash last September between the Japan Coast Guard and a Chinese trawler near the Senkaku islands. China has so far refused to react publicly to Japanese condemnation of the two latest incidents, while the resignation of Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and budgetary problems are keeping Prime Minister Naoto Kan's hands full for the moment.

Many commentators, including Shogo Suzuki writing here in November, believe that the Kan administration has dealt well with Japan's truculent neighbours, despite widespread public and media criticism. The Senkaku incident ended with US support for Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus and China facing an international backlash for its bullying tactics.

Since then, the Kan administration has published defence guidelines for the next five years that realign Japanese forces so that they face the East China Sea and protect Tokyo's interests in this area. There's nothing weak or indecisive about establishing a larger submarine fleet, transferring a squadron of F-15s to Okinawa and establishing a radar station on the Yaeyama islands southwest of the main Okinawa chain.

Attempts to create closer military ties with South Korea, including exchanges and joint drills, follow similar agreements with Australia and suggest that the Japanese Defence Ministry is serious about building bilateral alliances under the US security umbrella.

But this realignment is complicated by external factors: China's own response, which as recent events show, could test Japan's nerve and capabilities; North Korea, which satellite imagery suggests is preparing for a third nuclear test; and Russia.

The Kuril Islands have become a diplomatic headache for Kan since Russian President Dmitry Medvedev decided to turn them into a nationalist sacred cow, or ‘inalienable part of Russia’, late last year. While conflict is less than unlikely, Russian defence officials have spent the past month talking up plans for upgraded air defence, the deployment of amphibious landing ships to the country’s Far East and the revitalisation of infantry forces on the islands.

Hardening Russian rhetoric suggests the best Kan can hope for is a reduction of tensions. But the prime minister may be justified in considering the bitter irony of his position: pilloried for an issue that encapsulates Japan's 60-year failure under the Liberal Democratic Party to deal with its World War II demons.

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