Chinese activities near islands worry Tokyo, Philippines

AP and Reuters, TOKYO and BEIJING

Fri, Jul 26, 2013 - Page 1

Tokyo expressed concern yesterday over recent Chinese military and maritime activity near disputed islands that Japan controls, including the flight of a Chinese fighter jet near Japanese airspace.

Japan’s Defense Ministry scrambled fighter jets on Wednesday to keep a watch on a Chinese early warning plane flying over international waters between Okinawa and another island relatively close to the disputed area in the East China Sea.

Japan also spotted four Chinese coast guard vessels near the disputed islands for the first time since Beijing’s reorganization of the service to boost its ability to enforce its maritime claims.

“It was an unusual action that we have never seen before. We’ll keep monitoring with great interest,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said of the Chinese flight before leaving for Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, where he planned to discuss ways to cooperate and check China’s maritime activity in the region.

“I would like to share an understanding that we need to observe a rule of law, not a rule by force,” Abe said.

Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera said late on Wednesday that the flight of the Chinese Y-8 early warning plane was “a sign of China’s escalating maritime advance.”

Japan is also considering introducing drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Global Hawk used by the US military, and beefing up the role of self-defense troops in southwestern Japan to step up its defense against China’s increased activity around the disputed islands, Japanese media reported. Those plans are expected to be included in an interim defense policy report that the defense ministry is set to release today.

Japan’s coast guard said the four Chinese craft were seen early on Wednesday just outside Japanese territorial waters around the tiny uninhabited islands that Taiwan — which also claims the islands — calls the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese the Diaoyu (釣魚). Chinese Web sites ran photographs reportedly taken by the Japanese coast guard, showing a ship painted in the service’s new red, white and blue-striped China Coast Guard livery.

China has also frequently sparred with the Philippines and Vietnam over overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, another area to which the new coast guard is being deployed.

A China Coast Guard ship was sighted recently at Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) off the western Philippine coast, according to a confidential Philippine government report obtained by The Associated Press. China occupied the vast reef in 1995, sparking fierce protests from Manila.

The coast guard’s deployment “further demonstrates China’s resolve to consolidate its self-acclaimed indisputable sovereignty in the South China Sea,” according to the Philippine report.

Meanwhile, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yan-sheng (耿雁生) said the aircraft was on a planned training flight over the Pacific, the official China News Service reported.

“This was not aimed at any specific country or had any specific aim, and was in accordance with international law and practice,” Geng was quoted as saying.

“China has the legal right to freedom of flight over the relevant seas,” he said.