CNN is reporting that Japan scrambled fighter jets after they spotted a Chinese plane flying over disputed islands in the East China Sea. The islands are claimed by both countries. This is the first time that the dispute over the islands has lead to a military escalation. Analysts are warning this could lead to a dangerous new level of confrontation between two countries who historically do not get along.
Japan announced in December that the government was buying the islands from their private Japanese owners in order to further establish sovereignty there. The remote rocky islands have generally no value and the dispute is widely seen as an exercise in prestige.
China repeatedly has sent ships to the area in order to test the Japanese and find out how serious they are about their claims. The Japanese have broadcast messages to the ships that they are in violation of Japan’s territorial waters and need to reroute. Japan’s sovereignty over the islands has been the de facto status quo for the last 40 years. China is largely seen as challenging Japan’s de facto control of the islands.
Early Thursday morning the Japanese Coast Guard alerted the Japanese military that a Chinese government plane was spotted in the area. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said that the Japanese government sent in 8 F-15 jets and an early warning E2C plane to the area. When the Japanese planes arrived there were no further sightings of the Chinese planes either visually or on radar.
China’s State Oceanic Administration said a B-3837 patrol plane had arrived in the islands’ airspace Thursday morning in order to carry out a joint air-sea patrol with ships in the area. The patrol teams announced China’s territorial claim and told the Japanese ships to leave the area, it said.
The dispute has decreased economic ties between the two Asian countries and has lead to protests in both countries in favor of their government’s claims. The United States has said it does not get involved into these types of disputes but has urged both sides to come to a peaceful resolution, although US officials have said that the islands fall under US defense treaties it has with Japan.