Chinese coast guard ships sailed near the disputed Senkaku Islands almost every day last month, Japan said Monday. No big surprise there, except now there’s one key difference: a new Chinese law that allows for the use of arms by the coast guard against ships intruding into the waters that Beijing claims.
Also Monday, China urged Japan not to take “dangerous actions that may complicate” the situation, after Japanese officials said that its coast guard had a legal right to fire on foreign vessels if they forcibly land on the islets.
The government is facing growing pressure from more hawkish ruling party lawmakers to take a harder stance on China’s incursions, but at the same time, it’s painfully aware that one diplomatic misstep could escalate things.
Why is it, then, that Japanese fighter jets are being scrambled less than they have for years? Well, it’s not that Tokyo has chilled out about Chinese muscle-flexing. Instead, it reflects a shift in policy to free up resources for F-35 training — and to ensure pilots and planes don’t get worn out on these wild goose chases.
While the U.S. has confirmed numerous times that the Senkakus fall under the scope of the Japan-U.S. security agreement, Washington has traditionally been neutral on sovereignty.
So it came as a surprise to observers when U.S. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said last week that “We hold with the international community about … the sovereignty of the Senkakus, and we support Japan obviously in that sovereignty.” Days later, he apologized for the “error.”