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Japan Pushes Back as China Gains Strength in Asian Seas


In this photo from the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, a ship from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force sails during MALABAR 2021 on Aug. 27, 2021. The U.S., India and Australia also participated in the exercise, held in the Philippine Sea and Bay of Bengal.

Japan, the West's chief ally in Asia, is pushing back as China ramps up its military presence in Asian waters, including near Japanese coastlines and a group of disputed islets, analysts say.

On Tuesday, Tokyo protested after a Chinese navy survey ship entered Japanese waters for about three hours, Japan-based Kyodo News reported.

Earlier this month, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force repositioned a mobile radar system in its outlying islands because of increased Chinese activity in the region, U.S. military news website Stars & Stripes reported.

In January, a Japanese city government was planning to seek permission from officials in Tokyo to land on the disputed Senkaku Islands and plant signposts, according to the Chinese state-controlled Global Times news website. China claims the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands, as its own.

Chinese officials have complained formally to Japan as they dispute sovereignty over the eight uninhabited islets.

China has upped its naval and air presence in the East China Sea, which stretches between the two countries and expands into the wider western Pacific.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense said April 15 that the number of scrambles targeting foreign aircraft rose by 279 over the year ending in March, compared with the previous year. The ministry logged more than 1,000 such incidents in the past year, many involving China, according to Japanese media outlets.

Chinese show of strength

China is telling Japan, a former World War II foe, not to get in the way, experts say.

"No matter what Japan does, it can never change the fact that Diaoyudao [the Diaoyu Islands] is part of China," said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "China's determination to safeguard the territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyudao is firm."

In Beijing, President Xi Jinping hopes to appear strong before the Communist Party congress in late 2022, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

"China wants to send a strong signal to Tokyo that any escalation on the Japanese side will result in an escalation by the Chinese on Japan and the issues that Japan thinks is important. And in the case of Japan, it's the Senkaku Islands," Nagy said.

China hopes to deter other countries, including Japan, from challenging it in the western Pacific, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan. "I think it's so-called salami tactics, trying to see the reaction or response from Japan or U.S.-Japan alliances," Yang said.

Japan and the United States, a superpower rival of China's over the past five decades, have been treaty allies since 1951. The two sides will "consolidate or update" their alliance to "fend off a Chinese incursion," Yang predicted.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by phone March 24 with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, and on April 16, six U.S. lawmakers met Kishi to discuss what the ministry called the "further strengthening [of] the Japan-U.S. alliance."

Japan wants China to follow what it calls a "rules-based order" to ensure stability and economic prosperity in Asia despite political and military friction, according to an analysis by Thomas Wilkins, an expert in Japanese foreign policy at the University of Sydney.

Caution in Tokyo

Japan worries about what China's close ties with Russia mean for Taiwan, said Jeff Kingston, a history professor at the Japan campus of Temple University.

China has not ruled out use of force to control self-ruled Taiwan, Tokyo's neighbor and close informal ally. Russia has waged war on Ukraine since February.

Chinese and Russian warships sailed together between Japan's islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in October, alarming the Japanese government as it coincided with military exercises.

But Japan this month signed an agreement with Russia on the amount of salmon and trout originating in Russian rivers that Japanese vessels can catch. Japanese businesses want better ties with China, Kingston said. China was Japan's top export destination as of last year.

"Japan is part of the arc of anxiety in Asia regarding China's hegemonic intentions, and there's plenty of those countries that are worried, but the thing is, they don't really want to be really taking sides," Kingston said.

Japan and China will probably use a decades-old pattern of "signaling" — such as military movements — to stand tall against each other, Nagy said.

The Japanese Embassy in Washington did not reply to a request for comment.

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