Japan said it would respond calmly after the first-ever incursion by a Chinese plane into Japanese-controlled airspace near disputed islands ratcheted up tensions days ahead of an election.
A Chinese marine surveillance propeller plane was spotted by the Coast Guard near the uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. While Japan dispatched eight F-15 fighter jets, the plane had already left the area and China responded by calling the flight a normal activity in its own airspace.
“We will react calmly to any situation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters today in Tokyo. “But we will respond firmly according to Japanese law in the event of any breach of our sovereignty.” It was the first known violation around the islands by a Chinese plane, the Defense Ministry said.
The incident came three days before Japanese elections that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which has called for a more assertive approach with China, is forecast to win. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s purchase of the islands in September sparked sometimes violent protests in China, damaging a $340 billion bilateral trade relationship and hurting Japanese exporters like Toyota Motor Corp.
“China is trying to strengthen its claim of control over the area,” said Ikuo Kayahara, a retired major general in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and a visiting professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo. “If you look at the trend, they have escalated from fishery vessels to groups of marine surveillance vessels, and increased the frequency with which they enter Japanese waters. A plane adds another dimension.”
Chinese vessels have entered Japanese-controlled waters around the islands 17 times since Sept. 11 and have been warned off by the Coast Guard. Under Japanese law, incursions by aircraft require a response by the military, raising further potential risks.
“What happens if Japan tries to force Chinese planes out of our airspace and they do not comply?” Kayahara said. “That might lead to a forced landing and something could go wrong.”
Japan called in China’s envoy yesterday to make an “extremely severe protest” about the incident and an incursion by four Chinese ships the same day. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters yesterday in Beijing that China’s activities were “completely normal.”
“China requires the Japanese side to stop illegal activities in the waters and airspace of the Diaoyu islands,” Hong said.
Polls show the LDP is likely to win the Dec. 16 election for the lower house of parliament over Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan. Party leader Shinzo Abe advocates increased defense spending and stationing more police, coast guards and military personnel around the country’s southwestern islands.