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.
In China, Xi was appointed as head of a powerful interagency group formed in September at the top of the Chinese government to oversee China’s maritime disputes. That was two months before he assumed the leadership of the CCP and before he became the civilian head of the military at the 18th National Congress.
That means that for three months now, Xi has had a critical say in how China conducts its strategy with Japan, Western and Chinese analysts say.
At the same time, China has put greater focus on its growing maritime capacities. Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said in a farewell address that Beijing aimed to become a maritime power.
A highlight of Xi’s recent tour of southern China was a visit to one of China’s most advanced destroyers, the Haikou, which often patrols the South China Sea, another disputed area off China’s shores.
The dispute with Japan carries great resonance with the Chinese public.
The older generation recalls the history of the 1894 to 1895 Sino-Japanese War, when Japan humiliated China at sea and annexed the islands.
Many people also remember the brutal World War II Japanese occupation of China.
The younger generation bristles with the themes of a revised 1990s nationalistic school curriculum, even as they buy Japanese cars, electronics and fashion.
The economic fallout from the dispute has hurt Japan, but may not leave China unscathed, either.
Japanese economists say that Japanese auto sales in China, where top-tier Japanese brands were something of a status symbol, slumped precipitously in September and October. There has been a slight recovery since those lows, they said.
Some Japanese manufacturers in China, including Toyota and Sony, suspended production after anti-Japanese protests related to the islands, and laid off Chinese employees who demanded higher wages when they returned.
Some Chinese economists have warned Beijing that large-scale boycotts of Japanese goods could lead to huge job losses in a softening Chinese economy.
With little prospect of a return to more normal relations anytime soon, some Japanese factories in China are beginning to seek alternative locations in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, where wages are lower and employees are less demanding, some Japanese surveys show.
As the dispute drags on, China’s words and actions in international forums have escalated, too.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) wrote in an article in CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily two weeks ago that China would “resolutely fight against the Japanese side” over what he called the “illegal purchase” of the islands.
On Friday last week, China submitted documents to the UN detailing its claims to the continental shelf in the East China Sea, another step toward establishing what it says are its legal rights.
In mid-September, when the islands dispute first arose, Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng (樂玉成) foreshadowed China’s unfolding game plan.
Referring to the claims that would be handed to the UN, he said: “All these are proclamations of China’s sovereignty.”
China “will take tit-for-tat measures to protect our territory as the situation develops,” he added.