A Chinese navy vessel directed a type of radar normally used to aim weapons at a target at a Maritime Self-Defense Force ship in the East China Sea, prompting Japan to protest, Japan's defense minister said on Feb. 5, which could complicate efforts to cool tensions in their territorial row.
Itsunori Onodera told reporters on Feb. 5 about the incident that occurred on Jan. 30 in the East China Sea.
"This is an extremely unusual development, and there is the possibility of the situation moving into a very dangerous one with one false step," the Japanese defense minister said.
He added that a similar incident occurred on Jan. 19 in which a Chinese navy ship directed fire-control radar at a Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter.
According to Defense Ministry officials, a Chinese Navy frigate directed what is believed to be radar at the MSDF destroyer Yudachi that was about three kilometers away at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 30.
The directing of radar at the MSDF helicopter that took off from the destroyer Onami occurred at around 5 p.m. on Jan. 19.
Onodera said the directing of such radar would not normally be conducted.
"Because there is the possibility that a very dangerous situation could arise if there is one false step, Japan and other nations that possess such ships do not emit the radar that are used for fire control," Onodera said. "We will ask China to demonstrate restraint so that such dangerous acts are not conducted that could lead to such a situation."
The day before the MSDF helicopter had the radar directed at it, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton said the United States was opposed to any act that hindered Japan's administrative control over the Senkaku Islands. It was the first time the United States referred to acts by other nations in relation to the Senkakus.
Hopes have been rising for a thaw in ties between Asia's two biggest economies since a chill began in September when Tokyo nationalized a chain of rocky, uninhabited isles in the East China Sea.
In particular, there are hopes for a leaders' summit to help ease the strains that a junior Japanese coalition partner said on Feb. 5 could take place as early as April.
But deep mistrust, simmering nationalism in both countries and bitter Chinese memories of Japan's wartime aggression mean the road to a summit will be rocky and any rapprochement fragile.
The long-running row over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, has in recent months escalated to the point where both sides have scrambled fighter jets while patrol ships shadow each other.
Chinese officials were not available for comment on Japan's complaint about the radar, but a Chinese spokeswoman earlier urged Japan to stop what she called provocation.
"We believe that what is most urgent is for Japan to stop provocative actions like regularly sending in ships and aircraft into the waters around the Diaoyu Islands and seek, via talks with China, an effective way to appropriately control and resolve this issue," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference when asked about Chinese ships operating in waters near the disputed islands.
IN SEARCH OF A SUMMIT
Fears the cat-and-mouse encounters between aircraft or ships will cause an accidental clash have given impetus to efforts to reduce the tension, including the possible summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who formally takes over as head of state in March.
Abe's junior coalition partner, Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads the small New Komeito party, said a summit could take place as early as April if both sides tried hard to smooth the path.
Yamaguchi met Xi last month to deliver a letter from Abe, who took office in December after his party won an election. Abe, a security hawk who has vowed to stand firm in the islands row, earned a track record of fixing frayed ties with China during his previous 2006-2007 term as prime minister.
"There are two big opportunities," Yamaguchi told Reuters in an interview, referring to chances for a summit. "One would be when the passage of the budget is assured in Japan."
Abe's government aims to enact the budget for the year from April 1 in May, but its passage would be assured once it is approved by parliament's lower house, which could be in April.
"The other chance is after the (July) upper house election, around the 35th anniversary of the Sino-Japan friendship treaty on Aug. 12," Yamaguchi said. "Both sides need to make efforts."
Yamaguchi said the rise of tension over the isles had convinced both sides of the need for dialogue, although he acknowledged that finding a solution was tough.
"Of course, there are different opinions about the Senkaku and it is not easy to reach agreement. Both sides understand that," he said.
"But if we cannot control things on site, it will be difficult to prevent an accidental incident. The role of politicians is to ease tensions, prevent things from escalating and ... move ahead with aspects of mutual and common interest from a broad perspective."
Japan's purchase of the islands from a private citizen was aimed at easing the row but triggered violent protests in China.
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