Tokyo and Beijing traded blame Thursday over the second close and potentially dangerous encounter in just over two weeks between Chinese SU-27 fighter jets and Japanese reconnaissance planes over the East China Sea.
The close encounter took place Wednesday where the air defense identification zones of China and Japan overlap due to their claims to the Senkaku Islands, a defense official told The Japan Times.
Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to protest what Japanese officials described as a “very dangerous act” that could trigger an accidental clash between the two countries.
According to the Defense Ministry, one of the two Chinese jets came as close as 30 meters to a YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft from the Air Self-Defense Force, and within 45 meters of an OP-3C surveillance plane from the Maritime Self-Defense Force between 11 a.m. and noon Wednesday.
Japanese officials said the SDF turboprops were engaging in a “normal vigilance and surveillance” mission that it was legal under international law.
But Cheng said Tokyo’s claims were false and that a Japanese military plane approached a Chinese military plane first and flew within 30 meters of it. The two SU-27s then moved in to monitor the SDF planes, he said. The Chinese fighters maintained a distance of 150 to 200 meters from the SDF, Cheng told reporters after meeting with Saiki.
“The facts the Chinese side have confirmed are totally different. We cannot accept the protest by the Japanese side,” Cheng said.
Later in the day, the Chinese Defense Ministry posted a video on its website that showed an ASDF F-15 fighter jet flying next to a Chinese Tu-154 jet, apparently as claimed by Cheng. The ministry claimed the F-15 approached and flew next to the Tu-154 from 10:17 a.m. To 10:28 a.m. Wednesday.
In a statement on the website, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Gen Yansheng bashed Japan for trying to “deceive international society, tarnish the image of our forces and create tension in the region.”
In response, two high-ranking Japanese officials in Tokyo anonymously claimed the footage posted by China was taken earlier than Wednesday.
One of the two also claimed that no F-15 was involved in Wednesday’s encounter.
Separately, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters in Tokyo that even if F-15s were in the area, “experts who saw the video would conclude that the F-15 was carrying out a scramble operation very stably within the framework of international law.”
He added that he has no idea when and where the video was taken.
Earlier in the day, the Defense Ministry released what it said was a photo of one of the two SU-27s that reportedly approached the Japanese planes.
This is the second provocative encounter of its type in just over two weeks. On May 24, Chinese SU-27s flew within 30 meters of two SDF surveillance planes over the East China Sea, also in an area where the two nations’ ADIZs overlap. China and Russia were holding naval exercises at the time.
A high-ranking official said Thursday that the government now suspects China ordered the pilots to buzz the Japanese planes a second time.
“If an such encounter takes place once, that may be an accident. But this is the second time,” the official said on condition of anonymity. The encounters “may have been staged in an organized manner.”
In November, China declared it was extending its ADIZ over the East China Sea, eliciting strong protests from Tokyo and Washington, whose militaries are ignoring the zone. Japan established its ADIZ in 1969, based on one declared by the U.S.-led Occupation after World War II. Both zones cover the contested Senkaku Islands.
“The flight maneuver was so rough that the Japanese pilots felt it was dangerous,” Defense Minister Istunori Onodera said. “Chinese military authorities should maintain good morale (among pilots). That about sums it up,” Onodera told NHK.
Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have risen in recent months, particularly regarding the territorial row over the Senkakus, which are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taipei. The islets are called Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan.
The Japanese and Chinese militaries do not have an emergency hotline to prevent an accidental clash from escalating, and many government officials and experts fear the two countries may encounter just such an incident in the East China Sea or in the skies above it.
The risk has been growing recently as China regularly sends airplanes and ships into waters near the Senkaku Islands to assert its claim.
The Defense Ministry said ASDF fighters scrambled to intercept Chinese planes near Japan’s ADIZ 415 times in fiscal 2013, up from 306 in fiscal 2012 and 156 in fiscal 2011