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 30-50m 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 weekend incidents were the closest yet between Japanese and Chinese aircraft. They brought to mind a 2001 incident 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.
“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.
Chinese ships entered the territorial waters around the Senkaku seven times last August and five times last September. Since then they have sailed into the waters on two or three occasions each month, and so far this month only once.
最近几个月，中日两国在该争议岛屿附近海域的对峙局面，似乎进入了一种潜在风险犹在，但仍可控的模式。今年4月，美国的两位中国问题专家傅泰林(Taylor Fravel)和伊恩?约翰斯顿(Iain Johnston)指出，中国船只进入尖阁诸岛附近12海里区域内的次数似乎较去年10月大幅减少。