Two sophisticated Chinese Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters and two Japanese airplanes came as close as 100 feet to each other Wednesday morning in another close encounter over a disputed area in the East China Sea. According to Japan’s Defense Ministry, the clash occurred over international waters. A separate report claims that the incident actually involved two Japanese F-15 planes that had closely followed one Chinese Tupolev Tu-154 airliner-type aircraft. Whichever version is correct, Wednesday’s incident comes on the heels of a similar skirmish between the two countries on May 24th.
The friction of the last several years was triggered in 2012, when Japan purchased three islands in the Senkaku island archipelago from a private owner. Over the dissent of Japan and the United States, China followed with the announcement that it had extended its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to cover the majority of the East China Sea. ADIZs are customarily established solely by announcement. No international treaty grants authority to do so nor does international law prohibit their establishment.
Both countries claim ownership of a string of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which Japan refers to as the Senkaku Islands while China uses the name, Diaoyu. The archipelago generally extends in a southwesterly direction from the southern tip of Japan toward Taiwan. Except for a 27-year period from 1945 to 1972, when the islands were administered by the U.S., the archipelago has been controlled by Japan since 1895.
Relations between the two countries have long been difficult, due both to Chinese allegations that Japan has not apologized appropriately for its aggression during World War II as well the dispute over the islands.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, labeled the Wednesday incident as “extremely regrettable,” “hard to forgive” and “extremely dangerous.” His country immediately filed a diplomatic protest with China’s capital, Beijing, over the incident. China complained through its Defense Ministry that the Japanese objection is only the latest in a series of accusations intended to deceive the international community, smear the Chinese military and create regional tension.
The Japanese protest was identified by the Chinese ministry as “vile.” A spokesperson said that Japan has ignored facts, shifted blame onto the victim (China), and slandered and hyped what he referred to as the “so-called China threat.” Japan’s Suga deemed Chinese criticisms “irrelevant.”
Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, urged that the safety of aircraft be ensured by all countries involved. The need has been reinforced, she said, for countries in the region to establish crisis management procedures that will help avoid miscalculations or further incidents at sea or in the air. The United States remains officially neutral in the dispute.
When World War II officially ended with the activation of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952, one of the areas placed under U.S. administration included the Senkaku Islands. Neither China nor Taiwan questioned the sovereignty of the islands at that time. That changed in 1970 when evidence was exposed of oil reserves in the area.
The Washington Times in 2010 reported the existence of a 1969 “confidential” China-produced map of the area identifying the islands as “Senkaku,” the Japanese name. Also shown on the map is a dividing line south of the islands, clearly showing that they are within Japanese territory. The map appeared to contradict Chinese statements, such as one from its Foreign Ministry that declared, “The Diaoyu Islands have always been Chinese territory since ancient times.”
By Gregory Baskin