On 30 January, a Chinese Jiangwei II-class frigate entered the disputed waters around the Senkaku Islands, a cluster of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands. A Japanese destroyer was waiting.
When the two warships were only 3 km apart, the Chinese frigate turned on its fire-control radar that aims its 100mm gun and C-802 anti-ship missiles and “painted” the Japanese vessel. The Japanese destroyer went to battle stations and targeted its weapons on the Chinese intruder.
Fortunately, both sides backed down. But this was the most dangerous confrontation to date over the disputed Senkakus. Japan and China were a button push from war.
Soon after, a Japanese naval helicopter was again “painted’ by Chinese fire-control radar. Earlier, Chinese aircraft made a clear intrusion over waters claimed by Japan.
China’s Peoples Liberation Army HQ ordered the armed forces onto high alert and reportedly moved large numbers of warplanes and missile batteries to the East China Sea coast.
A U.S. AWACS radar aircraft went on station to monitor the Senkaku/Diaoyus – a reminder that under the 1951 U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty, Washington recognized the Senkaku Islands as part of Japan and pledged to defend them if attacked. Japan seized the Senkakus as a prize of its 1894-95 war with Imperial China.
China’s state-run media claimed the U.S. was pushing Japan into a confrontation with Beijing to keep China on the strategic defensive.
Japan’s newly elected government led by conservative PM Shinzo Abe vowed to face down with China. Spasms of angry nationalism erupted in both feuding nations. The Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, who also claim the Senkakus, chimed in with their territorial demands.
A special Chinese crisis group led by new President Xi Jinping has been set up to deal with the Senkakus – meaning any clash there may be more likely to become a major crisis.
Shades of August, 1914, when swaggering, breast-beating, and a bloody incident triggered World War I, a conflict few wanted but none could avoid.
Japan is in a difficult situation over the Senkakus. Its nearest air bases are in Okinawa, 500 km away; Japan’s main airbases are 1,000 km further to the Northeast.