Posturing Over Islands Could Mean China, Japan Showdown

History could repeat itself in a grim showdown.

In this photo released by Japan Coast Guard 11th Regional Coast Guard, a Chinese airplane flies in Japanese airspace above the islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese in southwestern Japan Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. A Japanese government spokesman said a Chinese airplane has been spotted in Japanese airspace above the islands controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing. The Defense Agency said four Japanese F-15 jets headed to the area which has been at the center of a territorial dispute Thursday morning, but no further action was taken.
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China and Japan's aerial posturing on Thursday comes amid turbulence in almost all major Asian powers.

Japan faces an election on Sunday, in which the incumbent will likely lose to an opponent known for hawkish language toward China. A new Chinese government assembled behind closed doors still seeks to assert its regional power employing a traditionally complicated relationship with its own military establishment.

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These most recent maneuvers come days after North Korea successfully caught the world's attention with a ballistic missile launch shortly before their neighbors to the south conduct their own elections.

Continued disputes between Japan and China will likely continue, though a chance of escalation could usher dangerous consequences.

"One thing I've learned about China: They are never happy. You can never make the Chinese happy," says Thomas Snitch, an Asian conflict expert. "Who knows what the internal dynamic is going on in China after this recent change in party."

Snitch has previously held senior roles at the National Academy of Sciences and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency."The Japanese get annoyed because they're living next to this '800-pound gorilla' that just occasionally throws their weight around," he says. "There's not much they can do except swat back at it. I guess that's what scrambling some F-15s will do."

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Japan deployed the fighters after a Chinese surveillance propeller plane flew over a chain of islands both countries claim as theirs.

This follows months of non-violent engagements between the two militaries as China transitions its domestic forces into a regional power. Japan's military has been limited to self-defense since World War II, but it recently began exporting military aid to its neighbors.

This most recent incident mirrors the usual provocation and response between the two countries, but that could change.

"The biggest risk here is the possibility of an accident," a U.S. Navy officer tells U.S. News. "Putting several aircraft in the same space at the same time increases the likelihood of a collision."

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"Scrambling eight fighters was a little aggressive on Japan's part," says the officer, who served in the region on the 7th Fleet commander's staff.

In 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 intelligence aircraft collided mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet killing the Chinese pilot. It led to an international dispute between the two nations often referred to as "The Hainan Island incident." Diplomatic restraint from both sides avoided escalation. The possibility for a repeat accident between China and Japan remains, as the countries use different languages for aerial maneuvers, says the officer, adding Japanese radar often doesn't pick up small Chinese planes like the Y-8 Chinese marine surveillance plane.

"There is very little potential for deliberate armed engagement by either side," the officer says. "We would obviously be involved in such an incident, urging restraint by both sides and working diplomatic back-channels. We have no interest in seeing this escalate."

Snitch adds of the potential for a deliberate Japanese offensive response: "What would that be?"

Support for Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party is largely fueled by country-wide disapproval of the current prime minister. It is comparable to the 2008 election in the United States, when Barack Obama won on a sentiment of "anyone but [President George W.] Bush," says Snitch.

"While I'm sure they're agitated about what China's doing, there is an ethos in Japan that still has the remnants of World War II and that whole anti-military establishment," he says.

Even if a newly elected Japanese prime minister wanted to ramp up military operations, he would be restricted by wavering public opinion as well as Article IX of the country's constitution, which prohibits an act of war by Japan.

China, in turn, also has to balance its desires to shore up regional resources against opposition from Japan, which can muster an international coalition.