Japanese fighter jets scrambled against approaching foreign aircraft 943 times in the year through March, almost matching the record set during the Cold War, amid a territorial dispute with China and fraught ties with Russia.
The number of foreign approaches, the highest since a record 944 in 1984 and up more than 16 percent from the previous fiscal year, was roughly evenly divided between Russia and China, the Ministry of Defense said on its website. About 1 percent were from other countries.
Government ships and military planes from China and Japan frequently tail one another in the area around East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, raising concerns about accidents. Bilateral ties between Asia’s two largest economies have begun to show signs of improvement, two years after Japan’s purchase of some of the islets from a private owner angered China.
While the data include some assumptions as to identity, many of the Russian planes nearing Japan were information-gathering aircraft, while many of the Chinese planes were fighter jets, according to the ministry. Charts of typical flight paths show Russian planes flying right around the coast of Japan, while Chinese aircraft flew back and forth between Okinawan islands.
Approaches by Russian aircraft peaked in April-June last year, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to improve relations with President Vladimir Putin ran adrift over the annexation of Crimea. Japan may also be of interest to Russian intelligence-gathering planes because it plays host to about 50,000 U.S. troops.
Japan’s fighter dispatches against China are handled almost exclusively by a single squadron on an air base on the southern island of Okinawa. The squadron sent planes up 468 times, according to the ministry data.