After repeatedly flying surveillance aircraft into disputed airspace with Japan, which made Tokyo scramble F-15s in response, China sent fighters of its own on Thursday into the East China Sea.
A Friday press release out of China confirms the incident began when Beijing was flying a Shaanxi Y-8 on a "routine Thursday patrol" over the "oil and gas fields in the East China Sea."
The fact that the aircraft is described as a S haanxi Y-8 is interesting in that the Y-8 isn't necessarily any one particular aircraft..
The Diplomat calls the Y-8 a transport plane, and it can be, but the aircraft has more than 30 variants. The Y-8 performs everything from Mineral Research, to G eophysical Survey ing, to Electronic Warfare to Intelligence Gathering and one variant is simply an innocuous but lethal fully loaded gunship, with two heavy cannons and three heavy machine guns.
It's the perfect plane for a game of cat and mouse because if the Y-8 ever received fire from Japan's F-15s, China could simply maintain it was an unarmed transport model carrying troops, or the Y8-F model that carries only livestock.
In the meantime, the plane can perform all manner of sophisticated tests on the seabed floor, and eavesdrop on Japanese communications. China has been flying these planes consistently lately to surveil the contested island chain that's supposed to hold billions in oil and gas reserves.
So, again, on Thursday Japan spotted aircraft in its Air Defense Identification Zone (above the islands) that it believed to be Chinese J-7 fighter-interceptors, and the Chinese developed J-10 fighter that rivals Western jets in its combat abilities. Tokyo responded by sending two F-15s from Naha, Okinawa — just a couple hundred miles away. There are minor variations from either side about who sent what first, but all agree the aircraft met above the islands.
The Chinese planes scattered soon after, but this marked the first time China and Japan flung military assets at one another over the East China Sea island dispute. A line was crossed and staying behind it in the future will only be more difficult.
The U.S. assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell announced that he will be traveling to Seoul, and Tokyo. What he decides in Tokyo will filter south to Naha and the Japanese unit confronting the Chinese.
An interesting fact about Naha, aside from its proximity to the contested territory, is that while being fairly remote, it is also home to Alfred R. Magleby, a United States Consul General who holds a M.S. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. This is appropriate, since the Naha Port (formerly Military) Facility is part of U.S. Forces Japan and the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is less than nine miles from where Japan's F-15s scrambled.
It looks like the islands everyone's talking about are a few dots in the middle of nowhere, but all of this is taking place close to the U.S. Consulate and a contingent of several thousand U.S. Marines whose former commanding general told Time in 2010: "All of my Marines on Okinawa are willing to die if it is necessary for the security of Japan."
In the future, when responding to China's fighter deployment, if Japan considers permitting its F-15 pilots to fire tracer bullets as warning shots against Chinese planes, it is now reasonable to assume that U.S. forces at Futenma may have an indirect say in that decision.
Firing tracers, which usually contain phosphorous or some highly flammable material, sends a line of light through the air like a laser. Tracers are usually loaded in about every tenth round to let gunners know where they're shooting, but in this case they would be fired to show Chinese pilots they're being fired upon.
An editorial in China's state-run Global Times called this possibility, "a step closer to war," warning a military clash is "more likely" while its people need to prepare "for the worst." With a U.S. presence so close at hand to where these Japanese decisions are being made, and tactical practices employed, we can hope for at least a bit of immediate tempering.
The Chinese jets are likely flying from air base Shuimen, built east of the islands in Fujian Province, not too much farther from the islands than Naha, Okinawa. So both sides have assets equally within reach of the islands.
Satellite imagery of the base came to light in 2009, and experts believe it was completed late last year.
In addition to aircraft, experts believe Russian made S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles ring the airbase, providing some of the best missile protection in the world. The S-300 is comparable to the U.S. made Patriot missile recently sent to Turkey for its first line of missile defense against Syria.
The Shuimen airbase compliment's China's East Fleet that maintains 35 ships in the region, including its newest warship the Type 054, seven submarines, and eight additional landing craft.
Among the subs are four Kilo-class diesel-electric Russian made submarines capable of the most advanced underwater warfare.
All of this located just 236 miles from the contested islands, which have been in dispute between Japan and China for some time. Han-Yi Shaw writes an interesting history of the dispute under Nick Kristof's On the Ground, for those interested in more background.
While the U.S. takes no official position on who owns the Islands, it would be expected to honor its U.S.-Japan security treaty signed in 1960.
Though it's a formal agreement to aid Japan if it comes under attack, there are few who believe the U.S. would risk a full-blown war with China over a few uninhabited islands, regardless of how much oil and gas lay beneath them.
That may or may not be the case, the thing is, no one knows. But with a U.S. presence so closely intertwined in these events, and a contingent of Marines standing by, it seems that whatever happens could involve American input — one way or another.
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