For Japan, China’s piecemeal advance through contested territory represents perhaps its greatest defense challenge since the end of World War II. Although several Asian nations have tried to curb China’s expansionist ambitions, some experts feel Japan is best-equipped for the task: led by a hawkish prime minister, powered by a reviving economy and backed militarily by the United States.
But despite ongoing upgrades to its aircraft and patrol boats and increased coordination with Washington, Japan has yet to find an answer for its increasingly powerful neighbor. Officials here say China continues to push boundaries, sending fighter jets closer to Japanese shores and last week declaring a new air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.
None of China’s moves, by design, has been provocative enough to spark an armed skirmish. That partly explains why deterring China has been so vexing for others in the region.
In the South China Sea, China has backed the Philippines away from several contested reefs and shoals by sending waves of increasingly powerful vessels to the area. Several Japanese officials and security experts say China is now duplicating that strategy in the East China Sea, but with more intensity because of the frequent use of aircraft.
China is trying to “unilaterally alter the status quo by coercive measures,” Fumio Kishida, Japan’s foreign minister, said in a news conference Friday.
Chinese officials portray their moves as responses to Japanese provocations, particularly Tokyo’s purchase in September 2012 of three contested islets from a private landowner.
But Japanese officials say China’s ambitions at sea go back well before that date, and they point to a several-year trend of Chinese activity in the East China Sea. In 2004, Japanese scrambles against Chinese aircraft occurred roughly monthly, according to Ministry of Defense statistics. By 2007, they happened almost weekly. This year, they’re happening more than once a day on average.
Two months ago, an unmanned aerial vehicle was spotted for the first time above the islets. A Japanese Defense Ministry press official said that its origin hasn’t been identified, but “if you take its flight path into consideration, it is possible to suspect it is a drone of China.”
The trend “testifies to a long-term increase in Chinese military activity in the maritime domain,” a Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation.