China and Japan seek to dial down tensions, however risks remain

By Linda Sieg and John Ruwitch, Reuters

TOKYO/SHANGHAI — Two Japanese F-15s scramble as a Chinese plane nears the disputed islands: one in the lead, the other providing cover. They issue radio warnings to leave the area, but are ignored.

Visual wing-tipping signals go unheeded. The Japanese pilots consider their last option: firing warning shots — a step Beijing could consider an act of war. That’s how the risky game being played near a chain of rocky, uninhabited isles at the heart of a row between Beijing and Tokyo could quickly escalate to the danger point, a former Japanese air force pilot said.

“China would be furious. They would regard it as war, although it is not by international law,” the ex-pilot said of the depicted scenario in the skies over the East China Sea. A long-simmering row over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, has in recent months escalated to the point where both have scrambled fighter jets while patrol ships shadow each other in nearby seas. Tokyo noted last month that its pilots have the right under global rules to fire warning shots against intruders in its air space, a step Japan has taken only once since World War II. Concerns that the increasing cat-and-mouse encounters between planes or patrol ships in the East China Sea will cause an accidental clash are giving impetus to efforts to dial down tensions, including a possible leaders’ summit. But while hopes have emerged of a thaw in the chill that began when Japan bought the islands from a private citizen last September, deep mistrust, regional rivalry and pumped up nationalism complicated by bitter Chinese memories of Japan’s wartime aggression mean any rapprochement will be fragile. “Most likely the two sides will eventually find a face-saving formula to step back from this. But I doubt it’s a flash in the pan,” said Andy Gilholm of consultancy Control Risks. “There seems no chance of a permanent settlement and even a durable setting aside of the issue looks very unlikely. So … we’re advising clients that this kind of friction is part of the new normal, not a fleeting storm.” With Japanese businesses suffering from a downturn in trade after violent anti-Japan protests last September and jobs and investment in China at risk if the feud drags on or worsens, the pressure is on to find a resolution of sorts. Japan’s ally the United States, which has shifted its attention to the region in an Asian “pivot,” has signaled it does not want to see a military clash over the islands, which Washington says fall under a two-way security pact with Tokyo. A string of Japanese politicians including Abe’s junior coalition partner and former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama — a socialist who issued a landmark 1995 apology for Japan’s wartime aggression — have visited Beijing in recent weeks. “These (visits) are being reported in China in an explicit way,” said Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University in Tokyo. “China is telling its domestic audience that it is time to try something new.” Nixon in China?