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May 26, 2014 8:06 am
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and senior Japanese officials have criticised China over two weekend incidents in which Chinese fighter jets came “dangerously” close to Japanese surveillance aircraft in the East China Sea.
The incidents occurred near an area in international waters where China and Russia were conducting joint exercises. China and Japan both claim the right to monitor and, if necessary, respond militarily to the presence of foreign aircraft in the area. Japan’s defence ministry said the fighters twice came within 30-50 metres of Japanese propeller-driven surveillance craft that were monitoring the exercises.
The episode is a reminder of the potential dangers stemming from a tense contest between Japan and China over influence in the area, which is home to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and where both sides have frequently shadowed each other with ships and aircraft since 2012.
The incidents are just the latest example of rising tensions in the region as China increasingly asserts its territorial claims in the South China and East China seas. China and Vietnam are engaged in a dangerous stand-off involving scores of ships near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The long-simmering dispute erupted earlier in May when China moved an oil rig to the area.
Manila also recently accused China of violating a regional code of conduct by reclaiming land at a South China Sea reef for the possible construction of an aircraft runway.
The weekend incidents were the closest yet between Japanese and Chinese aircraft. They brought to mind an episode in 2001 in which a Chinese jet collided with a US surveillance aeroplane that it was shadowing, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American aircraft to make an emergency landing at Hainan Island in China.
Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese government spokesman, on Monday accused China of “extremely dangerous behaviour that could lead to an unintended accident” and rejected an assertion from Beijing that Japan was at fault.
“There is absolutely no truth to the allegation that [the surveillance aircraft] engaged in dangerous behaviour that disrupted the joint exercise,” Mr Suga said.
China acknowledged the incidents but accused Japan of engaging in provocative behaviour. The defence ministry in Beijing said it scrambled the fighters after the Japanese aeroplanes flew into a “no fly” area that it had declared around the naval exercise.
Latest news and comment on the escalating disputes over islands and territorial waters between an increasingly assertive China and its neighbours
“Japanese military planes intruded on the exercise’s airspace without permission and carried out dangerous actions, in a serious violation of international laws and standards, which could have easily caused a misunderstanding and even led to a mid-air accident,” the ministry said.
Japan is devoting more resources to intelligence-gathering near the Senkaku Islands, which it controls but which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. After a meeting with his defence minister on Monday, Mr Abe said the latest incidents would not deter the government from ordering more surveillance flights.
“We need to continue our monitoring activities and protest firmly through diplomatic channels,” Mr Abe said.
In recent months, the stand-off between Japan and China near the islands seemed to have settled into a manageable if still potentially dangerous routine. Taylor Fravel and Iain Johnston, two US-based China experts, pointed out in April that the frequency of Chinese ships entering the 12-nautical mile zone around the Senkaku appeared to have fallen significantly from October.
The decline came despite China’s declaration in November of an East China Sea “air defence identification zone”. The zone – an area where countries claim the right to scramble fighter jets to visually identify aircraft and determine whether they pose a threat – overlaps with a pre-existing ADIZ maintained by Japan.
Chinese ships entered the territorial waters around the Senkaku seven times last August and five times in September. Since then they have sailed into the waters on two or three occasions each month, and so far this month only once.
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