On Dec. 13, an airplane belonging to China's State Oceanic Administration intruded into Japanese airspace over the disputed Senkaku Islands. This is a highly provocative act that could lead to an armed conflict between the two countries.
Since the Japanese government purchased the Senkaku Islands from a private landowner in September, Chinese government ships have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the islands as a way to assert China's territorial claims there. But this is the first time that a Chinese plane has intruded into Japanese airspace.
Such intrusions could take the territorial spat between the two countries to a seriously dangerous new phase.
Unlike intrusions into territorial waters, which are in principle responded to by the Japan Coast Guard, the country's maritime police, intrusions into airspace inevitably trigger defensive responses by the Self-Defense Forces, a military organization.
And indeed, the SDF scrambled eight fighter jets in response to the Chinese action.
The Chinese aircraft had already left the area by the time the SDF fighters reached it, but such mobilization of the SDF entails the risk of escalating the territorial dispute into a military confrontation.
In addition, a tense situation in which aircraft of the two countries come close to each other could cause accidents such as mid-air collisions, leading to disaster.
In 2001, a U.S. intelligence aircraft and a Chinese interceptor fighter jet collided over international waters in the South China Sea near the Chinese island of Hainan. The collision led to the crash of the Chinese jet.
A similar accident involving Japanese and Chinese aircraft could create an uncontrollable furor among the people of both countries. Such a situation would benefit nobody.
Beijing responded to Japan’s protest against the airspace violation by reiterating its official position that the Senkaku Islands are territory that is an inherent part of China and by claiming that the aircraft's operations were "completely normal." The operation of government ships and aircraft in the area constitutes "three-dimensional patrol" composed of activities in the sky and at sea, according to Beijing's explanation.
The Senkaku Islands have long been under Japan's effective control. The Chinese government has kept the people in the dark on historical developments concerning the islands. Its recent moves related to the territorial dispute have been nothing but attempts to change the status quo by force.
The intrusion into Japanese airspace took place three days before the Lower House election in Japan.
Though the Japanese government has maintained the position that there is no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, China appears to be trying to highlight the existence of such a dispute as part of a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the new Japanese government.
But such behavior will only make the new Japanese government distrustful of China and narrow its policy options.
During the election campaigning, some candidates have been calling for upgrading the status of the SDF to that of a formal national defense force and for constitutional amendments to ease the restrictions on the SDF's military operations. China's provocative acts could cause these calls to get louder.
China is acting as if it actually wants to see such reactions from Japan.
The SDF radars failed to detect the Chinese plane intruding Japanese airspace because it flew at low altitudes.
The Japanese government is considering measures to enhance its surveillance system, including use of early-warning aircraft. It should make every possible effort to improve its ability to make effective responses to such situations.
Needless to say, both countries should make serious efforts for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In order to improve the diplomatic environment for efforts to calm the dangerous situation, China should stop making provocative moves immediately.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 15
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