The skies over Okinawa are often perilous, with sudden squalls complicating air traffic over this subtropical Japanese outpost. In recent months, the treacherous airspace has gotten even busier, with Japanese fighter jets based in Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture, scrambling in record numbers as tensions between China and Japan spiral over a scattering of disputed islands. The uninhabited outcroppings in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese, are currently administered by Japan but China maintains historic claims to them.
The situation is particularly tense at the moment because of a collision of sensitive anniversaries. Sept. 18 is the 82nd anniversary of Japan’s brutal invasion of northern China. And a year ago on Sept. 11, the Japanese government nationalized some of the disputed islands, provoking protests in Chinese cities where anti-Japanese sentiment simmers. From April 1, 2012 through June 30, 2012, 15 Japanese jets were scrambled 15 times as a result of perceived threats from China, whether by sea or air. During the same period this year, the number jumped to 69. “It’s not as if there’s no connection between the Senkaku nationalization and the increase in scramblings,” says Naha air-base commander Major General Yasuhiko Suzuki, with typical Japanese understatement, as F-15s from his base roared overhead.
On Sept. 9, the Japanese government confirmed for the first time that an unmanned Chinese drone had flown over Japan, not so far from the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. (It did not violate Japanese airspace.) The day before, Chinese bombers traced another landmark course over Okinawa but again veered away from actually entering Japanese skies. Over the past year, Chinese warships have made historic forays into waters near the contested islands, as have flotillas of Chinese coast-guard vessels that Beijing says are merely patrolling around Chinese waters. The seas around the disputed spits of land are rich in natural resources, from oil and natural gas to fish stocks.
Animosity between Asia’s two biggest powers is nothing new. But tensions were certainly heightened after the Japanese government nationalized three of the disputed islands last September. The controversial move was aimed, the Japanese government says, to prevent the islands from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s nationalist governor, who threatened to buy the outcroppings from their private Japanese owners. But Beijing, which in recent years has been more vocally asserting its territorial claims, took exception to the nationalization of the islands. (The tiny islands are also claimed by Taiwan.)
Shinzo Abe, the hawkish Japanese Prime Minister who came to power late last year, has presided over a boosting of Japan’s military hardware and defense spending in recent months. On Sept. 17, Japanese media reported that the nation’s Defense Ministry was considering shooting down drones, if future violations of Japanese airspace were to threaten people’s lives. Japan’s postwar constitution, which was devised by the victorious Americans, limits the nation to defensive maneuvers. But any mooted military action, including a strike against drones, is certain to provoke national debate.
With nationalist rhetoric emanating both from Abe’s administration and that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute has taken on a geopolitical significance that far outweighs the isles’ miniscule footprint. In the meantime, the pilots at Naha air base are busier than ever. “Yes, the stress level has increased because of the scramblings,” admits Atsushi “Riceman” Takahashi, a veteran fighter pilot who now instructs younger charges. “But the scramblings also show our pride in keeping the national security of our domain.” Doubtless Riceman’s Chinese counterparts, who are expanding their own presence in Asian skies, would say just the same.
— With reporting by Chie Kobayashi / Naha