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According to MSN.com and CNBC, from Okinawa, while the world watches mounting military tensions in the South China Sea, another, more ominous situation is brewing in the East China Sea that could be the trigger point for a major war between the superpowers. At the heart of tensions are eight uninhabited islands controlled by Japan that are close to important shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves. China contests Japan’s claims and is escalating its military activity in Japan airspace. In response, Japan has been doubling its F-15 jet intercepts.
The situation increases the risk of an accidental confrontation — and could draw other countries, like the United States, into a conflict. It’s a topic President Trump will likely bring up with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate this week.
Such airborne intercepts are on the rise over the East China Sea, with Japan now averaging roughly two intercepts of Chinese aircraft per day since April of last year, nearly twice as many as in the 12 months prior. In response to the uptick in Chinese military activity in airspace Japan considers its responsibility, JASDF, Japanese Air Self Defense Forces, has doubled the number of fighter aircraft at its Naha Air Base, adding a second squadron of F-15Js — the Japanese version of the U.S.-made F-15 fighter jet — in January of last year.
The increased intrusion of Chinese military air traffic into airspace protected by the JASDF, along with the uptick in aerial intercepts, heightens the risk of an accident or misunderstanding between the two militaries — a situation that could rapidly escalate, given the already heightened military tensions in the region. Such an incident, intentional or not, could quickly spiral, potentially drawing U.S. forces in the region into the fray.
“They’ve routinized their intrusions into our territorial sea space,” says Eisuke Tanabe, a senior policy coordinator in the joint staff councilor’s office at the Japanese Ministry of Defense, noting that incursions by Chinese surface ships into waters claimed by Japan are increasing alongside airborne incursions by Chinese fighter jets. “We send our fighters, and that makes the situation possibly very dangerous, when fighters and fighters come close.”
From April to December of last year, Japanese fighter jets scrambled to intercept Chinese aircraft 644 times (Japan’s fiscal year runs April 1 to March 31 of the following year). While Japan has not yet released total figures for fiscal 2016, Ministry of Defense officials briefing CNBC on the matter maintain that the tempo of airborne intercepts continues to increase, as it has every year since 2008.
JASDF forces haven’t intercepted this many aircraft since the busiest days of the Cold War, when aircraft form the Soviet Union were active in the region.
A political hot button
On Okinawa — home to several major U.S. military installations as well as a meaningful contingent of Japan’s Self Defense Forces — one particular sticking point serves as a regular reminder to Tokyo of just how tense Japan/China military relations have become: the Senkaku Islands.
The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands to China), located some 225 nautical miles west of the main island of Okinawa and just 90 miles north of the Japanese island of Ishigaki, are claimed by both countries, creating an ambiguous security situation as both nations’ militaries attempt to administer the uninhabited land masses and their surrounding territorial waters and airspace. Key to the dispute are both the rich fishing waters around the Senkakus and reports of potential oil and gas reserves in the seabed of the surrounding East China Sea. Sovereignty over the islands for either China or Japan (or Taiwan, which also claims the islands) would bolster any future claims to those energy reserves.
In recent years, the Senkakus have become a political hot button for both nations, stirring nationalism on both sides while driving a cautious approach by a Japanese government eager to avoid open confrontation with China. Following an incident near the Senkakus in September of 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler deliberately rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship, Japan claims it has taken a soft approach, urging Japanese fishermen to steer clear of the islands even as Chinese ships continue to ply the waters around the Senkakus.
“Our observation is that China is trying to develop the capabilities of their various aircraft in the Western Pacific Ocean,” Yurie Mitsui, deputy director of the Strategic Intelligence Analysis Office within the Japanese Ministry of Defense, says. Because the increase in both surface ships around the Senkakus and airborne missions in the region require long-term planning and preparation, intelligence analysts have no choice but to read the uptick in activity as deliberate policy, she says.
According to The Hill:
While the American media have naturally focused on the domestic political imperatives bearing down on Trump, Xi also faces challenges. The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held later this year. It is all but certain that Xi will be nominated for another five-year term as general secretary — the office from which his power actually derives — but observers say he nevertheless needs to show he can stand up for Chinese interests without rupturing relations with Washington.
“No Chinese leader would survive if he or she was perceived as giving ground on issues such as Taiwanese independence or the South China Sea,” Cheng said. “The Chinese leader has to walk a finer line, in ways, than the American leader does — showing that he is not to be messed with but not so crazy as to jeopardize an economy that is already slowing down.”
Trump ruffled Chinese feathers during his transition period when he accepted a call from the president of Taiwan, which is considered a breakaway province by Beijing.
In February, however, he said that he would stick to the more traditional American position, known as the “One China” policy.
Melanie Hart, the director of China policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that the confusion over “One China” could prove an impediment for Trump as he seeks to pressure the Chinese over North Korea.
“Trump has already cried wolf over ‘One China’; now he has to convince Xi that he is serious on North Korea in a way that he was not serious on Taiwan.”