Two Russian fighters violated Japanese airspace on Thursday, Tokyo’s defence ministry said, prompting Japan to scramble its own warplanes in what was reported to be the first such incident in five years.
The planes were detected off the northern island of Hokkaido for just over a minute, shortly after Japan’s new prime minister said he wanted to find a “mutually acceptable solution” to a decades-old territorial row between the two.
Japan’s foreign ministry lodged a formal protest over what it said was an incursion by a pair of Russian Su-27 fighters. Four Japanese F-2 fighters were sent up to visually confirm the Russian planes, according to Kyodo news.
“Today, around 3pm, military fighters belonging to Russian Federation breached our nation’s airspace above territorial waters off Hokkaido’s Rishiri island,” the foreign ministry said.
If confirmed, it would be the first breach of Japanese airspace by Russia since February 2008, according to Japanese media reports.
However, Moscow denied any incursion had taken place, in a statement by the spokesman for the military command’s eastern district, Roman Martov, given to Russian news agencies.
“Flights by the air force of the Pacific Fleet take place regularly in this region, in strict adherence to the international rules, without violation of state borders,” it said.
The alleged incident came hours after hawkish Japanese premier Shinzo Abe - who swept to power in December with pledges to get tough on diplomacy - offered apparently conciliatory comments toward Moscow over the Russian-administered Southern Kurils, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
Abe’s tone was in marked contrast to his uncompromising stance on a dispute with Beijing over the sovereignty of a different set of disputed islands.
“There is no change in my resolve to do everything I can towards sealing a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the issue of the Northern Territories,” Abe said.
In December, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to restart talks on signing a peace treaty formally ending the hostilities of the second world war that has been stymied by the dispute.
“In the telephone talks, I told President Putin I would make efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution so as to ultimately solve the issue of the Northern Territories,” Abe told a government-backed rally of around 2,000 former islanders and their descendants in Tokyo.
Soviet forces seized the isles, which stretch out into rich fishing waters off the northern coast of Hokkaido, in the dying days of the second world war and drove out Japanese residents.
The islands were later re-populated by Russians but remain a poor and undeveloped part of the country.
Abe’s comments come as tensions between Japan and China have intensified over the sovereignty of the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyus.
On Tuesday, Japan said a Chinese frigate had locked its weapons-targeting radar onto a Japanese military vessel, the first time the two nation’s navies have locked horns in a dispute that flared badly last summer.
Abe on Wednesday called the radar move “dangerous” and “provocative”.
On Thursday, Beijing shot back that Tokyo has been “hyping up crisis and deliberately creating tension to smear China’s image”.
The Japanese prime minister has repeatedly said there is no room for negotiation over the East China Sea islands. But he has also stressed the row should not harm overall ties with Beijing, an important trading partner.