US Ally Faces Fresh Challenge in East China Sea

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China has warned the Japanese air force to leave the airspace near the Senkaku Islands in a fresh case of tensions over a disputed islet territory.

On February 3, the China Coast Guard began to issue warnings to Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) aircraft last month, demanding they vacate airspace over and around the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China, Kyodo News reported.

These warnings, communicated via radio, are based on Beijing’s assertion that SDF aircraft may infringe upon Chinese territorial airspace, highlighting a significant increase in diplomatic tensions.

The Senkakus comprises five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks that sit roughly 200 miles southwest of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture.

Sources familiar with the situation have indicated that these radio warnings have occurred multiple times since January, reflecting an intensifying stance by China over its territorial claims.

In response, Tokyo has firmly rebuffed these claims, labeling the warnings as “totally unacceptable” and has conveyed its objections to Beijing through diplomatic channels. Japan’s restrained public response underscores its cautious approach to managing its complex relationship with China, aiming to prevent further deterioration of bilateral ties.

The dispute over the islands is a long-standing source of friction between Japan and China. The Senkaku Islands, uninhabited and strategically located, are also claimed by Taiwan, which refers to them as Diaoyutai. Although Taiwan has reached agreements with Japan regarding fishing access, it has remained mainly on the sidelines of the territorial dispute.

Adding to the tensions, one of the China Coast Guard vessels issuing these warnings was reportedly armed with a 76-millimeter rapid-fire gun capable of striking targets up to a dozen kilometers away. This development indicates the heightened military readiness and assertiveness of Chinese maritime forces in the region.

A Japan Air Self-Defense Forces carrier pictured at the Yokota base on September 1, 2007, in Tokyo, Japan. China warned the Japanese air force to leave the airspace over the Senkaku Islands.

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images News/iStock

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute has been a persistent irritant in China-Japan relations, with Chinese coast guard vessels frequently entering waters near the islands since the situation escalated in 2012.

In a recent statement, Coast Guard spokesperson Gan Yu claimed that Japanese vessels “illegally entered” the waters, demanding an immediate cessation of such activities.

This ongoing territorial dispute comes amid broader regional security concerns, notably around the potential for a future conflict over Taiwan. In a significant move, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military have, for the first time, designated China as a hypothetical adversary in their joint command post exercise, according to a separate Kyodo News report from February 4.

This development reflects growing apprehensions regarding China’s military ambitions in the region, including fears of a possible invasion of Taiwan.

In 2023, Chinese vessels were recorded near the Senkakus on 352 days, marking an all-time high since Japan nationalized the islands in 2012, according to Kyodo News.