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Chinese Fighter Jet in Near Miss With Japanese Recon Planes

On Monday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that his government had lodged a protest with Beijing for Chinese jets closing within meters of Japanese reconnaissance planes over the East China Sea. Tokyo has every right to be upset. Beijing, from all indications, looks like it was trying to create incidents by flying too close for safety.

On Saturday, Chinese Su-27 jets flew within 50 meters of a Japanese OP-3C and within 30 meters of a Japanese YS-11EB, both propeller-driven reconnaissance craft. “This is a close encounter that is outright over the top,” said Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on Sunday. At no other time since World War II have Chinese and Japanese military planes come into such close proximity.

Beijing justified its provocative actions by saying it had declared a no-fly zone over joint naval maneuvers with Russia in the East China Sea—the first ever between the two countries in that body of water—and that the Japanese craft had flown into the area. “Japanese military planes intruded without permission on the exercise’s airspace and carried out dangerous maneuvers, in a serious violation of international law and standards, and this could have easily caused a misunderstanding and even a mid-air accident,” declared a statement issued by China’s Ministry of National Defense on Sunday.

Tokyo denies that the incidents in the air took place near the exercise, but even if they had, the Japanese had every right to fly there. China, on the other hand, had no authority to close off international airspace.

Moreover, China’s ministry in the same statement made another provocative claim: “Chinese military aircraft have the right to maintain safety in the air and to employ necessary identification and prevention procedures against foreign aircraft entering China’s air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.” Beijing, in other words, is beginning to enforce the expansive ADIZ that it declared in November without consultation with affected nations.

Yes, every country with a coast can declare an air zone, but China’s zone includes what is considered the sovereign airspace of Japan, the air over the disputed Senkaku Islands. The People’s Republic of China claims those islands too—asserting sovereignty in 1971 after essentially acknowledging they were Japanese—but Japan in fact has controlled them for more than a century. So, the inclusion of the airspace over the islets in China’s air zone is a provocative move.

Saturday’s incidents inevitably recall the one in April 2001 when a Chinese jet clipped a US Navy EP-3 in international airspace over the South China Sea. The reckless Chinese pilot tumbled into the sea and was never found, and the American plane limped to a base on China’s Hainan Island, where it made an emergency landing. Beijing imprisoned the 24 crew members for 11 days and stripped the craft of its electronic gear. The Bush administration issued a statement akin to an apology to the Chinese and paid $34,000—essentially a ransom—for the release of the aviators. America’s response was a disgrace.

Bush defenders say the White House was able to move beyond the crisis, but the White House taught the Chinese that there was no price to be paid for aggressive conduct in the skies and what was an act of war on the ground. And today we can see that the Chinese are once again engaging in dangerous flying. Feeble foreign policies always have a cost, even if the price is not immediately apparent.

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