WASHINGTON – U.S. and Japanese officers are discussing worst-case contingency plans for retaking the Senkaku Islands, disputed islets in the East China Sea, if China moves to seize them, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The Nikkei newspaper first reported the talks, which prompted a strong reaction from China.
“We have contingency plans and we discuss them with allies,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity, saying it was “natural” that the two governments would confer on emergency scenarios given recent tensions.
A Pentagon official, who also asked not to be quoted by name, confirmed the discussions, saying “we’re a planning organization.”
But both sources said the U.S. government did not want to fuel tensions, and that the contingency planning would be only one of many topics on the agenda when top U.S. and Japanese officers meet in Hawaii later this week.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of U.S. Pacific Command, is scheduled to host Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki, chief of the Self-Defense Forces Joint Staff, for Thursday’s talks.
Officially, the Pentagon would neither confirm nor deny whether the contingency plans were under discussion.
“As a matter of policy, we do not discuss our military planning efforts,” said Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson.
“The U.S. policy on the Senkaku Islands is long-standing. We encourage the claimants to resolve the issue through peaceful means,” she said.
The United States has made clear that its alliance with Tokyo applies to the islets, raising the possibility of U.S. military action in support of Japan if China moves to seize them.
Beijing and Tokyo both claim the islets, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu.
The dispute has escalated in recent months, with Beijing repeatedly sending ships to waters around the islets to back up its claims. Tokyo has alleged that a Chinese frigate locked its radar on a Japanese destroyer in January.
In a faxed response to a query, China’s defense ministry said it had seen the Nikkei report and reiterated Beijing’s stance that the islets belong to China.
“The determination and will of Chinese military forces to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are steadfast,” the ministry said.
“We firmly oppose any action that could further complicate and magnify the situation.”
China’s newly installed President Xi Jinping is vowing to fight for a “great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” Xi has close ties to China’s expanding military, and called for the armed forces to strengthen their ability to “win battles.”
Japan too has expressed a new strain of nationalistic rhetoric under its hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has urged new graduates of the National Defense Academy to guard the country against “provocations.”