A modest-looking twin-propeller Chinese aircraft loaded with radar and other surveillance equipment swooped low over the waters close to disputed islands in the East China Sea on Thursday last week, the latest move by China to increase the pressure on Japan over who owns the uninhabited island chain.
By itself, the less than 30-minute flight by the nine-year-old plane into what Japan considers its airspace did not amount to much. Japanese F-15 jets were sent, but the Chinese plane had left by the time they got to the area.
However, the Chinese sortie was part of a steady escalation in the air, on the sea and in public statements by China against Japan, a strategy that analysts say was fixed upon three months ago to take back the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which are claimed by Taiwan, Japan and China and known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. They say the strategy is being overseen Chinese Vice President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平).
Just days before the Chinese plane ventured into the contested airspace, four Chinese warships, returning from an exercise elsewhere, entered waters near the islands, cruised along for five hours and then left, Chinese state media said.
Chinese law enforcement boats have been patroling the waters close to the islands regularly since September, but the appearance of the Chinese navy near the islands on three occasions, combined with the incursion by the plane, adds new dangers to the dispute, analysts say.
In effect, the Chinese authorities are trying to unilaterally change the “status quo” of the islands, which have been administered by Japan for decades, and attempting to use the air and naval patrols as evidence of their own longstanding claim, analysts say.
“China is now challenging Japan’s effective control of the islands with ships on the water and planes in the air,” said M. Taylor Fravel, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The goal is to deter Japan from trying to develop the islands, but there was an inherent risk that an accident at sea or in the air between the two sides could spiral out of control, with unforeseen consequences, he said.
Japan, which itself regularly patrols the islands, says that the Chinese only started making a claim to the islands in the early 1970s, after evidence emerged that the seabeds nearby might hold rich oil and natural gas deposits.
The latest dispute over the islands began months ago, when Tokyo’s right-wing governor at the time suggested that his city might buy some of the islets back from a Japanese family to bolster Japan’s control by erecting structures on them. The central government then bought the islands, saying it was trying to reduce tensions and would not build structures there, but China viewed the purchase as a provocation.
The stepped-up pressure by China came as Japanese went to the polls on Sunday in an election that returned to power former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party of Japan.
Although Abe in the past has tried to improve relations with China, he is also known as a hawk and campaigned on strengthening Japan’s defenses forces against China’s mounting challenges. The Japanese navy is already considered one of the world’s most sophisticated, but China is increasing its naval capacity.