China has warned Japan that it is “playing with fire” in the South China Sea after Tokyo said it would step up engagement in the contested waters.
The rebuke on Thursday comes just days after China sent fighter jets — part of a group of more than 40 aircraft — through a key international entryway into the Western Pacific for the first time, skirting islands in Okinawa in a manner that caused Japan to scramble fighter jets.
On a visit to Washington earlier this month, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said that Tokyo would “increase its engagement in the South China Sea through … Maritime Self-Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy” and via maritime capacity-building with littoral states in the region.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun called Inada’s announcement an attempt by Japan to “muddy” the situation in the South China Sea for its own benefit.
“We must warn Japan that this is a miscalculation,” Yang said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website. “If Japan wants to have joint patrols or drills in waters administered by China, this really is playing with fire. China’s military will not sit idly by.”
An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper Thursday warned of fraying Sino-Japanese ties, saying that the two Asian rivals “are stuck in a state of cold peace and they must avoid sliding into a cold war.”
“While there is no overarching military tension, undercurrents indicate that the two consider each other as an imagined enemy,” the editorial said, adding that both “are seemingly building psychological readiness toward the possibility of a military clash.”
However, the head of the Maritime Self-Defense Force said Monday that Inada’s comments had been misinterpreted and that such “joint training cruises” with the U.S. had already been taking place “for several years.”
“We are not thinking of conducting operations only by ourselves,” Adm. Tomohisa Takei said.
The comments come at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea after a tribunal with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled in July against Beijing’s claims to virtually the entire strategic waterway, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes — including a large portion of Japan’s oil and gas imports.
Tokyo, which is not a claimant to the waters, where Beijing has constructed artificial islands and built military-grade infrastructure, has been a strong supporter of the ruling and has urged China to heed it. Beijing has refused, calling the decision “waste paper.”
Tokyo’s support of U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waterway, as well as its assistance to rival claimants, has enraged China, which it accuses of meddling in its affairs.
In what experts say could be a connected move, Beijing dispatched the large contingent of more than 40 bombers and fighter jets through the Miyako Strait earlier this week.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said Thursday that the flight was not targeted at any country.
The show of force, which Beijing said was part of “regular patrols,” also saw some of the aircraft conduct overflights of China’s unilaterally declared East China Sea air defense identification zone, home to several tiny islets known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. The islands are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing, which are embroiled in a bitter dispute over them.