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June 28, 2017

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China flies for benefit of the doubt

China's dispatch of a marine surveillance plane into the airspace of islands administered by Japan appears to be part of a high-risk plan to create a situation whereby Japan's claim to effectively control the Senkaku Islands is put in doubt.

The Chinese state newspaper Global Times declared triumphantly, "This marks another important step for China in safeguarding the sovereignty of the islands," known to China as the Diaoyus.

Japan scrambled F-15 fighter jets in response but, by the time they reached the area, the Chinese propeller plane of the State Oceanic Administration had already left.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a protest over "violation of China's territorial airspace" by Japanese fighter jets.

Global Times acknowledged that "An aerial confrontation between China and Japan will have much higher stakes than a standoff of ships between the two ... If Tokyo keeps on intercepting Chinese patrol planes, such a confrontation is bound to happen sooner or later."

The territorial dispute is far from being a bilateral issue. The State Department said the United States had "raised our concerns with the Chinese Government directly and made clear that U.S. policy and commitments regarding the Senkaku Islands are long-standing and have not changed."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved an amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act reiterating that "while the United States takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, the United States acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The unilateral actions of a third party will not affect the United States acknowledgement of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands."

The United States says that the islands are administered by Japan and hence covered by the two countries' security treaty.

China's strategy, it appears, is to challenge Japan's effective control of the islands. It has been sending patrol ships into adjacent waters for two months and now, it appears, will be patrolling the airspace as well.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, declared that the flight path of the first-ever Chinese plane to overfly the islands was "completely normal."

"The Diaoyu Island and affiliated islands are part of China's inherent territory," he said. "The Chinese side calls on Japan to halt all entries into water and airspace around the islands."

While the islands are uninhabited, the seas around them teem with fish and significant oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed.

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