Japan, China Scramble Military Jets in East China Sea
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Japan, China Scramble Military Jets in East China Sea

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Tensions continued to escalate between Japan and China over disputed islets in the East China Sea on Thursday, with Japan reportedly sending two F-15s from Naha, Okinawa, after several Chinese military aircraft crossed into its Air defense identification zone (ADIZ). China responded by scrambling two J-10s of its own.

Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force spotted the Chinese aircraft in its ADIZ over the East China Sea at about 12pm on Thursday, Kyodo quoted a senior Defense Ministry official as saying, adding that the Chinese aircraft never entered Japanese airspace. Kyodo said the Chinese aircraft penetrated Japan’s ADIZ on three occasions.

The official said the Chinese aircraft, which numbered more than 10, included J-7s and J-10 fighter aircraft, though according to Chinese media, Japanese reports seem to have mistaken the J-7, an interceptor, for the JH-7 “Flying Leopard,” a fighter/bomber. Unconfirmed reports also alleged that some of the planes may have been early-warning aircraft.

In a press release on January 11, the Chinese Ministry of Defense said that a Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft was conducting a routine patrol over oil and gas fields east of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, and confirmed it had dispatched two J-10s after the two F-15s from Japan closed in on the transport plane.

The Chinese aircraft left the area soon thereafter.

In a Friday editorial on the crisis, the Global Times wrote that “thanks to Japan’s arrogance toward China …China and Japan may stand at a turning point that leads to confrontation,” adding that the resentment between the two nations had reached the “highest level since World War II.”

“A military clash is more likely. We shouldn't have the illusion that Japan will be deterred by our firm stance. We need to prepare for the worst,” it wrote.

Unlike previous incidents, which involved civilian aircraft, patrol boats or fishing vessels, Thursday’s events were the first time the two countries dispatched military aircraft against one another in the East China Sea, a significant development and one that bodes ill for the future, unless third-party mediation prevails upon the two sides to stand down.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department announced that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell will lead a delegation to the region next week, with stops planned for Seoul and Tokyo. Campbell, joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials, met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai at the State Department on Thursday afternoon.

Separately on Thursday, Assistant Secretary Campbell spoke in some detail about U.S. policy towards the Japan and China row during a speech at a think tank in Washington, DC.

"We want both countries to recognize that, literally, northeast Asia is too important to the global economy. We cannot afford to have continuing tension degrade relations between the two most important countries in Asia – Japan and China, not only for our security, but our economic prosperity going forward," Campbell said, China Daily reported. On the sidelines of the event Campbell reportedly told reporters that his trip next would focus primarily on resolving the Japan-China dispute.

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday that Japan would take “all possible surveillance measures” to protect the Senkaku islands and surrounding waters, in response to Beijing’s announcement that it would conduct regular patrols in waters near the Senkakus, which he said was “extremely abnormal.”

On January 9, in an announcement that could be more bluster than policy, the Japanese defense ministry said it was considering authorizing Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) aircraft to fire warning shots at Chinese planes that enter Japanese airspace. Xinhua News Agency editorialized that such a move was “provocative,” “dangerous” and “irresponsible,” adding that by adding warning shots, Japan had “slipped further into the wrong direction.”

A stimulus package unveiled by Tokyo on January 11th includes 180.5 billion yen ($2.03 billion) of defense funding for missiles, fighter aircraft and helicopters.

Even before the latest escalation many had been warning that the Sino-Japan spat was becoming more dangerous and risked spiraling into conflict. Ian Bremmer, founder and president of the geopolitical consulting firm Eurasia Group, told CNN this week that, “The danger of China-Japan conflict in 2013, for me, is the single biggest geopolitical tension that is underappreciated right now and one we're going to have watch very carefully.”

These sentiments were echoed in Eurasia Group’s Top Risks report for 2013.

Meanwhile, in a sign that Tokyo may be resorting to “goodwill” to widen the distance between China and Taiwan — the third claimant in the Senkaku dispute — Taiwanese fishermen are reportedly noticing a marked relaxation of enforcement by Japanese coast guard vessels in waters off the islets. Although Tokyo denies there has been any change in its policy, Taiwanese fishermen have been able to operate freely in areas that had hitherto led to intercepts.

Despite repeated denials by Taiwanese government officials, critics of the Ma Ying-jeou administration fear that Taiwan, whose relations with China have on some levels greatly improved in recent years, may be “ganging up” with China against Tokyo over the Senkakus, which are called the Diaoyu islands by China and the Diaoyutai islands by Taiwan.

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