The risk of a military clash between China and Japan escalated yesterday, with Beijing saying it had scrambled two J-10 fighter jets to monitor Japanese military planes near a disputed part of the East China Sea.
The announcement came as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo's firm stance on disputed East China Sea islands, known as the Diaoyus in China and the Senkakus in Japan, was not negotiable.
In Beijing, a Ministry of National Defence spokesman said that a Y-8 aircraft, belonging to the State Oceanic Administration, was patrolling airspace southwest of oil platforms in the sea on Thursday when Japan sent two F-15 fighter jets and another surveillance jet to follow the cargo aircraft at close range.
That prompted the People's Liberation Army Air Force to send two J-10 jets to closely monitor the Japanese planes.
"Aircraft from Japan's Self-Defence Forces have intensified their surveillance activities against China, and expanded the area of their scope, disturbing the normal patrols and training of Chinese civilian and military aircraft," the spokesman said. "This is the root cause of maritime and airspace security problems facing the two countries."
Citing Japanese defence ministry officials, Kyodo News reported late on Thursday that "several" PLA fighter jets had been spotted inside Japan's "air defence identification zone", but had not violated Japan's territorial air space.
Meanwhile, the defence ministry in Tokyo said Japan's Air Self-Defence Force fighters were scrambled again yesterday to head off a Chinese Y-12 aircraft near the disputed islands.
Observers said it was rare for Beijing to send military jets, and the move highlighted escalating tensions.
"What happened on Thursday is a potential crisis leading to a military clash between the two countries," said Antony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association. "Both countries find it difficult to step back, especially as Beijing regards Abe as a hawkish and aggressive leader.
"If the situation continues like this, it's possible that the two countries could exchange fire."
Abe said yesterday that Tokyo would not negotiate over the islands and accused China of targeting Japanese businesses.
"Regarding Senkaku, there is no change to my position to resolutely protect this water and territory," he said. "There is no room for negotiation on this."
Additional reporting by Associated Press