Tokyo (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The tension between Tokyo and Beijing over the ownership of islands in the South China Sea has now assumed Cold War dimensions. China has warned that the Japanese attempt to encircle the islands "has failed and continues to fail" and announced a series of geographical studies "to safeguard the rights of the sea". Japan for its part has responded by scrambling its military aircraft with U.S jest, though for now the exercises are taking place away from the hot zone.
The United States and Japanese fighter jets have in fact begun a series of joint exercises that will last for 5 days in the south-western area of the Japanese archipelago. The squadrons involved include 6 U.S. FA-18 bombers and 4 Japanese F-4 jets: the total exercises in will involve 90 American soldiers and an unknown number of Japanese colleagues.
The decision to conduct joint military exercises comes a few weeks after the election of Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese prime minister considered a "hawk" in foreign policy and economics. Abe has based his campaign on a policy of toughness towards China and has repeatedly held that sovereignty over the disputed islands "is not in discussions." According to Ministry of Defense sources in Tokyo, permission to shoot at "anyone" in breach of the national territory (including air and water) is being considered.
In recent months, China and Japan have significantly raised the tone of the stand-off. Several Chinese ships have passed through the waters of the archipelago - though Beijing has called these provocations "patriotic activities" - and the two armies have challenged each other in the air on at least three occasions. For the moment no shots have been fired, although analysts in both countries stress that their military "will never pull back."
Known by the Chinese as Diaoyu and Senkaku by the Japanese, the islands have been in dispute for many years.More recently, the Japanese government bought the islands from a private owner. For China, this was a "provocation", further exacerbated by Tokyo's decision to send planes over the area. In response, China sent its own planes for the first time since 1958.
The value of the islands remains unclear. They are strategically located because they are in the middle of major sea routes. The waters offer rich fishing grounds and the seabed around the islands could hold important natural gas reserves. In 2008, as a token of détente, the two governments signed an agreement for joint development and research on the islands, but it was never implemented.