Japan says it may fire warning shots and take other measures to keep foreign aircraft from violating its airspace in the latest verbal blast between Tokyo and Beijing that raises concerns that a dispute over hotly contested islands could spin out of control.
Japanese officials made the comments after Chinese fighters tailed its warplanes near the islands recently. The incident is believed to be the first scrambling of Chinese fighters since the tensions began to rise last spring.
According to Chinese media, a pair of J-10 fighters was scrambled after Japanese F-15s began tailing a Chinese surveillance plane near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. China has complained the surveillance flight did not violate Japanese airspace and the F-15s were harassing it.
It was the first time the Chinese media has reported fighters being mobilized to respond to Japanese air force activity in the area and comes amid what Japan says is a rapid intensification of Chinese air force activity around the islands, where Japanese and Chinese coast guard ships have squared off for months.
Though there have been no outright clashes, the increased sea and air operations have fueled worries that the situation could spin out of control.
Such concerns have grown over official comments suggesting new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet are considering the use of "tracer" fire as a means of responding to airspace incursions. Tracer rounds are designed to burn brightly to get the attention of a pilot who may have missed other warnings due to a radio malfunction, while also indicating that the aircraft firing them is prepared to take further action.
"Every country has procedures for how to deal with a violation of its territory that continues after multiple cautionary measures," Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday when asked if tracer shots would be fired against intruding aircraft that refuse to change course. "We have response measures ready that are consistent with global standards."
Onodera said the use of warning shots has long been provided for under Japan's defense policies and is widely accepted under international rules of engagement. Japan's air force has not actually resorted to them since 1987 — against a Soviet aircraft — and none were fired last week.
But Chinese and Japanese media have suggested Tokyo is publicly floating the possibility to test China's reaction.
The escalation of tensions has worried the United States, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying Friday that while the U.S. doesn't take a position on who has sovereignty over the islands, it opposes "any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration."
That brought a sharp retort from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Sunday. The comments "ignore the facts" that the islands are China's inherent territory, spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement that urged the U.S. to adopt "a responsible attitude."
In Beijing last week, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China is on "high alert" and suggested Japan is escalating the tensions over the islands, called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. Taiwan also claims the small isles, which are uninhabited but may be surrounded by valuable underwater natural resources.
"Chinese planes and ships are exercising normal jurisdiction in the waters and airspace surrounding the Diaoyu Islands," spokesman Hong Lei said. "We are opposed to the operations of Japan's planes and ships, which violate our rights around Diaoyu. We are on high alert against this escalation."
As is often the case, Chinese media quoted military academics with a much more fiery response.
"Japan's desire to fire tracer warning shots as a way of frightening the Chinese is nothing but a joke that shows the stupidity, cruelty and failure to understand their own limitations," Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences was quoted as saying by the China News Service and other state media.
"Firing tracer bullets is a type of provocation; it's firing the first shot," he said. "Were Japan to dare to fire tracers, which is to say fire the first shot, then China wouldn't stint on responding and not allow them to fire the second shot."
Peng said Japan may have put out the report to generate discussion and gauge China's response.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report from Beijing.