China has accused Japan of “unprofessional and dangerous” provocations — including radar lock-ons of military aircraft — amid a record spike in scrambles by the Air Self-Defense Force.
Beijing and Tokyo have blasted each other this year over a number of incidents in the air and at sea as a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea continues to boil. This has prompted concern over the prospect of an accidental clash by the two Asian giants near the tiny islets, which are known as the Diaoyu in China.
In the first half of fiscal 2016, the ASDF scrambled fighter jets against Chinese aircraft nearing Japanese airspace a record 407 times, the Japanese Defense Ministry said on Oct. 14.
According to the ministry, ASDF fighters were scrambled against foreign military planes a total of 594 times between April 1 and Sept. 30, up 251 times from the same period last year.
China accounted for nearly 70 percent of the incidents. There were no occasions in which a foreign military plane entered Japanese airspace.
On Thursday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Wu Qian said that the activities of Chinese military aircraft have been “completely in line with international law and practice.”
“On the contrary, the Japanese side has strengthened the reconnaissance and patrol against China,” Wu said, calling the Chinese activities “routine training.”
“What’s more dangerous is that the aircraft of Japanese Air Self-Defense Force switched on the fire control radars or even dropped an infrared countermeasure bomb during encounters with Chinese aircraft, which was unprofessional and dangerous provocation and which harmed the safety of the Chinese aircraft and personnel,” Wu said.
“This is the root cause triggering China-Japan sea and air problems,” he said.
He urged the Japanese side to adopt a “responsible attitude” to prevent accidents at sea and in the air.
Beijing’s moves to cement its effective control of the South China Sea have stoked concern in Tokyo that China will begin focusing on the East China Sea and Western Pacific.
On Thursday, the Defense Ministry in Tokyo said it had scrambled fighters after two Chinese military surveillance planes were spotted flying through a key international entryway into the Western Pacific between Okinawa and Miyako Island.
Last month, China sent fighter jets and bombers — part of a group of more than 40 aircraft — through that entryway for the first time.
Also in September, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force announced that it will be organizing “regular” exercises that fly past the so-called first island chain.
Experts say the extensive chains of Pacific islands that ring China are seen by some in Beijing as a barrier designed during World War II by the United States to contain China and its navy.
According to retired U.S. Marine Col. Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, expanded Chinese operations into the Western Pacific are likely to continue stoking concern in Tokyo and Washington.
“This is going to get worse and worse, unless Japan concedes its claim to the Nansei Shoto (Ryukyu Islands) and anywhere else in the East China Sea that China claims,” Newsham said. “It useful to step back a decade and consider Chinese military activity in East Asia. It’s been a gradual, but steady increase in assertiveness, both in where they’ve done things and what they’ve done.”
The maneuvers could also be seen as China finding its footing as it expands its military footprint and begins flying in international airspace more regularly.
Tetsuo Kotani, a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said the recent operations were “a learning process” for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army “about how a responsible military behaves.”
“The PLA can enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight but have to preserve international rules and customs,” Kotani said.
“China should understand it cannot shape Japanese response by taking dangerous and provocative maneuvers and making false allegations,” he added. “As long as the PLA continues to behave against international rules, the chance of accident will increase.”
Beijing has also increasingly been dispatching vessels to areas near the Senkakus.
In June, a Chinese warship entered the contiguous zone just outside Japan’s territorial waters for the first time. And in August, more than 300 Chinese fishing ships and government vessels entered the area near the Senkakus, sending tensions between the two nations skyrocketing.
Japan and China have agreed to establish a maritime and air communication protocol intended to prevent accidental clashes between aircraft and vessels, but implementation has been stalled since Japan effectively nationalized the Senkakus in 2012.
The Japan Forum for Strategic Studies’ Newsham, however, said while an incident in the air or sea was important, there were larger security issues at stake for the region.
“We shouldn’t focus too much on the danger of an incident in the East or South China seas, but instead look at the larger issue of Chinese aggressiveness and threatening behavior in the region,” Newsham said. “This is the larger question. An agreement over avoiding incidents at sea or in the air is small potatoes compared to the risk of China elbowing the U.S. out of East Asia or even bullying Japan until Japan either submits or is forced to fight back.”