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Escalation or calculated risk

Introduction

Recently Japan flew fighter jets over the disputed Senkaku islands (as they are named by Japan) in the East China Sea, leading to raised concerns in China, which remains ‘highly vigilant’ of further Japanese move. Both the countries have been involved in such confrontations and flying fighter planes over the disputed territory as means of escalation of tensions, which makes the whole issue potentially explosive.

Reaction

Japanese Foreign Ministry has acknowledged scrambling F-15 jets on several occasions to intercept Chinese surveillance planes that they considered breaching Japanese air space. China, on the other hand, has replied that the planes were on a regular patrol in undisputed Chinese airspace.

Clearly, both sides consider the disputed territory in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, as their own. Therefore, both the sides are claiming violation of their sovereign airspace by the other and can take action against each other permissible to historical norms and consensus.

On December 13, 2012, a Chinese Y-12 twin turboprop aircraft conducted air patrol in what the Japanese claimed a breach of their airspace. Japan responded by scrambling eight F-15 fighters and asking the Chinese aircraft to vacate ‘Japanese airspace’. In reply they were told by the Chinese that it was them who were violating ‘Chinese airspace’.

The situation in the East China Sea region was already volatile and incidents like this add fuel to fire.  Japan had purchased three of the disputed islands last summer from a private owner, which led to violent anti-Japan protests across China and escalated tensions between the two countries. The protest included calls for boycott of Japanese goods.

Japan has a new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who is termed a ‘hawkish politician’. He announced that Japan would not yield to any threats over the sovereignty of its islands and would boost its defence spending to counter any Chinese threats.

China, on the other hand, claims that the current Japanese move was unreasonable, aimed at increasing pressure on an already tense situation. China remains ‘highly vigilant’ over further Japanese move and added that Japan must bear responsibility for the consequences.

China has been trying to exert greater influence in the Asia-Pacific region, which is being supplemented by strengthening of its military. It has been engaged in coercive diplomacy in the region involving nations it has territorial disputes with. These include Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, who claim parts of the South China Sea.

The potentially explosive situation in the East China Sea might well be the result of carefully thought out Chinese strategy of escalating the tensions and waiting for a Japanese response. Chinese patrol ships have been continuously seen in the area around the disputed islands since September 2012, claiming it to be Chinese territory.

This Chinese strategy of escalating confrontation was sure to evoke a reaction from the Japanese side which it did by deploying fighter planes over the disputed territory.

Further, Japanese Defence Ministry has announced that with a view to strengthen its security over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it would fly American build unmanned drones – Global Hawk UAVs - over its territory in the East China Sea in 2015.

This kind of confrontation between the two countries is fraught with the grave danger of escalating to a full-fledged war or armed action against one another, especially with both the sides determined not to compromise on their territorial sovereignty, which would lead to consequences for the entire region.