Chinese Warships Cross Waters Near Japan

Tensions surrounding the Diaoyu Islands continue to mount between China and Japan as China commissioned its first aircraft carrier and launched a destroyer. Amid claims of a propaganda war, the Wall Street Journal reports Chinese naval vessels have been spotted crossing near Japanese waters:

A defense ministry official said that Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft identified seven Chinese navy ships 49 kilometers from one of Japan’s southwest islands, Yonaguni, at 2200 GMT.

The ships, headed northward from the Pacific Ocean to the East China Sea were about 200 kilometers south of the contested islets, called the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. It was the first time that Chinese naval ships were spotted taking a northbound route in that particular area.

It isn’t illegal for Chinese warships to pass through Japan’s contiguous zone, which they have done with some consistency. However, groups of Chinese vessels have been passing through waters near the Senkakus, sometimes entering Japanese waters despite being warned not to, and that has kept Japan’s Coast Guard on high alert since Japan purchased the islets from a private Japanese owner, souring relations to their worst in nearly a decade.

The ministry’s joint staff official said that it has no information on the ships’ current location, or why they were there. “It could have been that they were avoiding a typhoon,” the official said, adding, “sometimes China announces afterward that they were carrying out a military exercise, other times we receive no explanations.”

While it has been unclear if the ships’ movements were related to the territorial dispute, China has responded by claiming the ships were on a cruising exercise, the Associated Press adds:

It was unclear if their mission was directly related to the territorial issue, or whether they were trying to avoid an approaching typhoon.

China’s Defense Ministry said the ships were on a scheduled cruising exercise and were acting in a manner that was “appropriate and legal.”

Underscoring China’s sharper stance, it also protested the scrambling of a Japanese military plane in the direction of the disputed islands, calling that a “gross violation” of Chinese sovereign rights.

Chinese websites were abuzz Monday with photographs of navy pilots practicing touch-and-go landing exercises on China’s first aircraft carrier. It wasn’t clear when the pictures were taken, and they did not appear on the Defense Ministry’s website or in official media.

Aside from China and Japan, Taiwan has also participated in the escalating dispute by sending their own ships, and the United States has played a role in the maritime sovereignty row. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, a US commander sees a peaceful end to the China-Japan maritime dispute:

“In my estimation we are headed toward a peaceful resolution and not toward conflict,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Bangkok today, referring to the dispute between China and Japan. “And we need to stay on that course.”

Locklear said he was in “very close contact” with counterparts in Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, as well as Chinese military officials. He declined to speculate on how the U.S. would react if the conflict escalated.

“In the end, the military response will be dictated by the decisions that are made by two governments at the highest levels,” Locklear said.

Locklear said the U.S. would continue to challenge countries that make “excessive” maritime claims. When asked about harassment of U.S. ships in the South China Sea, Locklear said encounters with vessels from other nations have been “professional and courteous.”

Economic tensions have continued as Japanese automakers slashed production due to the plummet in sales. Airlines have also suffered as passengers are canceling their trips to Japan. Spring Airlines, China’s budget carrier, has announced that it will be offering free tickets to Japan to boost demand, from Reuters:

The country’s largest private low-cost carrier is offering free round-trip tickets between Shanghai’s Pudong airport and Japan’s Saga prefecture, a rural area in southern Japan near the city of Fukuoka, until December 20, airline spokesman Zhang Wuan said.

Spring Airlines’ flights to Saga, which run three times a week, are now more than half empty compared with 90 percent occupancy before the islands dispute escalated.

The offer of free tickets comes after a Saga official visited Spring Airlines in Shanghai, expressing hope that the route would continue with the local Saga government’s support, Zhang said. He declined to comment on what support is being offered.

The islands row has also forced Spring Airlines, like other Chinese rivals, to cut the number of flights to Japan.