After naval patrols, verbal accusations, protests and activists planting flags, the latest fad in the East China Sea dispute – the now world-famous disagreement over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands – is flying as close as possible to your neighbor’s fighter jet.
Last week – for the second time in less than a month – Chinese and Japanese planes came within a stone’s throw of each other in the skies, at high speed. Naturally enough, as Beijing and Tokyo tend to disagree on everything in so far as foreign policy is concerned, the two countries offered the world two different versions of the same episode.
According to Japan, the first to announce the event on Wednesday, two Chinese SU27 fighters approached a Japanese plane. On Thursday, China said instead that two Japanese F-15s flew close to a Chinese TU-154 plane on a routine flight. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense also published a video which allegedly shows the aggression. On Friday, Japan rebuked China’s version of the events, but that will hardly end the controversy. This time, then, we won’t even have a standard version of the story.
A nearly identical incident had taken place on May 24, eliciting similar responses: China said that two Japanese F-15 fighter planes came within 10 meters of a Chinese Y-8 transport aircraft, while for Japan the villain was a Chinese SU-27 which approached a Japanese OP-3C (a surveillance plane.)
The crisis over the tiny, rocky islets located in the East China Sea, which China calls Diaoyu and Japan refers to as Senkaku, went from dormant to very much alive in 2012 when Japan bought the islands from a private citizen. Since then, each contender has claimed exclusive ownership of the chain and various actions have been taken to reassert sovereignty on it. Cheng Guangbiao, a well-known Chinese tycoon, even purchased an ad page on the New York Times to strengthen China’s claim among international readers.
But both sides have so far been unsuccessful in establishing their position as the only correct one. What has been achieved, instead, has been a series of tit-for-tat which exchanges that has strained the relations between the two Asian giants and the security environment in East Asia. And the confrontation is escalating. According to the Guardian ,“Japan scrambled fighter jets against Chinese planes 415 times in the year ended in March, up 36 percent on the year.”
This time, too, reactions have demonstrated that interest in dialogue is running low. The Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense summoned Japan’s defense attaché to China to lodge “solemn representations” on June 13 and published a note on its official website remarking that “for a long time, Japan tracks, monitors and interferes [with] the Chinese warships and military aircraft, which endangers the Chinese warships and military aircraft and it is the root of the China-Japan naval and air security issues.” According to the Ministry, “Japan often deliberately claims irresponsible, deceptive and agitational remarks to attack China maliciously, which totally exposes its hypocrisy and dual character in relations with China.”
The day before, Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki had lodged a protest with Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua, while Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga argued that authorities in Tokyo “believe there is no truth in China’s assertions that Japanese fighter planes came within 30 meters of a Chinese plane and severely affected the flight’s safety.” Mr. Suga did not seem much interested in Beijing’s opinion: “Chinese criticism is irrelevant,” he said last week.
Yet, it should be noted that the battle of words has not yet taken the bizarre tone we heard last winter, when the Chinese and the Japanese Ambassadors to the United Kingdom accused each other’s country of being the ‘Voldemort of Asia.’ As, according to J.K. Rowling’s own definition, Voldemort is a raging psychopath, the more recent current accusations of lies and misrepresentation could almost be seen as an improvement.