BEIJING--China’s saber rattling over the Senkaku Islands started to intensify last month after the United States responded to an airspace intrusion by a Chinese maritime patrol aircraft.
Since then, the belligerence has continued. But China, showing heightened fears about U.S. involvement, has also taken action that is pushing the row closer to an actual conflict with Japan.
A Chinese maritime patrol aircraft on Dec. 13 entered Japanese airspace over the islands in the East China Sea, the first by China since 1958, when the Self-Defense Forces began keeping data.
In response, the U.S. military on Jan. 10 began deploying airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, equipped with sophisticated radar systems, to monitor the area around the uninhabited islands.
A source close to the Chinese military blasted the deployment, calling it an “intervention” in the territorial dispute. The source also said the U.S. military is using the Tokyo-Beijing feud as a pretext for raising pressure on China.
Nine days after the U.S. AWACS aircraft deployment, a Chinese frigate apparently trained a fire-control radar on a Maritime SDF helicopter, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry. Then on Jan. 30, a fire-control radar was locked on an MSDF destroyer.
Although Japan administers the Senkaku Islands and puts them under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefecture, China, which calls them Diaoyu, is increasingly acting as if it has sovereignty and has directed strong words toward Washington.
After a Jan. 18 meeting in Washington with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference: “Although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan. We oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration.”
Beijing reacted angrily to her words.
“We urge the U.S. side to be responsible on the Diaoyu Islands issue, be discreet in word and deeds …,” Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement on Jan. 20.
China has also not eased its criticism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even though he has toned down his hard-line stance on the isles issue and has called for improved Japan-China relations.
Abe, in response to a question in the Diet on Feb. 1, said posting government employees on the Senkaku Islands was “an option.” His reply was considered a show of consideration toward China because he shopped short of committing himself to the step.
But Beijing did not take his comment that way.
“Abe makes many hard-line remarks,” said a Chinese government source, echoing the prevailing view among Chinese officials.
The PLA Daily, the official paper of the People's Liberation Army, reported in its Jan. 14 edition that the PLA General Staff Headquarters told all military branches to prepare for war.
According to military sources, fighter jets in China’s inland areas were moved to bases in coastal areas along the East China Sea in response to the PLA’s instructions.
The National Defense News, another PLA-affiliated paper, carried a front page story on Jan. 15 that said China will never fail to strike back if Japan takes action.
“There is a high likelihood that unmanned aircraft will clash over the Diaoyu Islands within several years,” the article said.
The Chinese military has also been visibly showing off its growing military might.
On Jan. 17, the Chinese Navy's East Sea Fleet, based in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, carried out exercises with missiles in the East China Sea.
In another exercise, three warships of the North Sea Fleet based in Qingdao, Shandong province, began conducting live-fire war games in the western Pacific on Jan. 29.
"We are already prepared for war against Japan," a source close to the Chinese military said.
China is handling the Senkaku Islands dispute under the direct command and coordination of a top-level task force led by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China who doubles as chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
The establishment of the task force in September represents Beijing’s resolve not to back down or compromise over the issue, party sources said.
Chinese authorities have said that Japan should get used to China’s constant surveillance in the air and sea around the Senkaku Islands.
(This article was written by Atsushi Okudera and Kenji Minemura.)
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