01/12/2013, 00.00
CHINA - JAPAN

Tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu feed the winds of war between Tokyo and Beijing

China scrambles two fighter planes to the disputed islands, complaining that Japanese planes disturbed its normal patrols. For Japanese prime minister, sovereignty over the atolls is not negotiable. Military expert says the East China Sea is becoming a potential source of crisis; “it's possible that the two countries could exchange fire”.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Beijing and Tokyo are inching closer to military confrontation over a group of islands in the East China Sea after China yesterday sent two J-10 fighter jets to monitor Japanese military planes near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

China's action comes in the wake of statements by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who reiterated his hard-line position, saying that "There is no room for negotiations".

"What happened on Thursday is a potential crisis leading to a military clash between the two countries," said Antony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association.

In Beijing, a Ministry of National Defence spokesman slammed Japan for stepping up its aerial surveillance of the disputed islands, which disturb "the normal patrols and training of Chinese civilian and military aircraft".

Citing Japanese Defence Ministry officials, Kyodo News reported that "several" PLA fighter jets had been spotted inside Japan's "air defence identification zone", but had not violated Japan's territorial air space.

Such events have been reoccurring in the past few months, as Tokyo and Beijing push their respective claims to the islands in the East China Sea by sending Navy vessels, coastguard ships, fishing trawlers and now aircraft.

More recently, Japan's Defence Ministry began envisaging the possibility of authorising its planes to shoot at Chinese aircraft should they violate Japan's air space.

"China may be testing the waters to see how Japan will respond now that the Abe administration has taken over," an article in the Mainichi Shimbun suggested.

"It appears that the purpose [of the frequent intrusions by ships and aircrafts] is to put pressure on Japan to acknowledge the existence of a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands."

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.

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