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China's military moves near Senkakus seen as retaliation

Taisho Island, one of the Senkaku Islands, is pictured from a Japan Coast Guard aircraft in this June 19, 2006 file photo (Mainichi)

A Chinese warship's entry into a contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, emphasizing China's strategic relationship with Russia, is being seen as an act of retaliation against U.S. forces' Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea.

According to the Japanese Defense Ministry, crew members of a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel confirmed that a 3,960-ton Chinese Navy Jiangkai I-class frigate entered a contiguous zone northeast of Kuba Island, part of the Senkaku Islands, at around 12:50 a.m. on June 9 before leaving the zone at around 3:10 a.m.

Prior to the move, three Russian vessels, including a destroyer, entered the contiguous zone from between Kuba and Taisho islands at around 9:50 p.m. on June 8, and left the area at about 3:05 a.m. the next morning. The Russian vessels were reportedly on their way home after participating in multilateral military exercises in Southeast Asia.

China's Defense Ministry defended the military's latest actions. "The Diaoyu Islands and the surrounding islands are China's inherent territories. Chinese military vessels sailing in the seas under China's jurisdiction is lawful and no other country has the right to say anything about such action," a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said in a statement issued on June 9.

Prior to the move, on June 7, a Chinese fighter came alarmingly close to a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft above the high seas of the East China Sea, but China criticized U.S. forces over the incident.

"The source of the problem is reconnaissance activities frequently conducted by U.S. forces," said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Japan and the United States are aligned against China over the South China Sea issue. Beijing had avoided provoking Tokyo and Washington until the conclusion of the June 6-7 U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue.

However, after the talks ended without an agreement regarding the South China Sea, China took countermeasures against the Japan-U.S. containment policy in the East China Sea instead, which is closer to Japan.

The latest entry by a Chinese warship into the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands suggests that Beijing carefully planned its tactics to keep both Japan and the United States in check.

While having previously dispatched China Coast Guard vessels to the sea around the Senkaku Islands, the country had never sent military troops to the area; the latest move served to create a fait accompli.

At the same time, the warship entered only the contiguous zone, which is permitted under international law, and stopped short of intruding into Japan's territorial waters, presumably to leave room for China to evade criticism from countries concerned.

Moreover, through its latest actions, China was attempting to gauge how serious the United States is about responding to a row between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands. Japan rules the islands, which are also claimed by China.

While President Barack Obama has stated that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, Washington does not want to get involved in any contingencies between Japan and China.

The latest entry by the Chinese warship into the contiguous zone was likely aimed at "testing the Japan-U.S. alliance," according to a source involved in the Japan-U.S. security arrangement.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration will shortly hand down a decision on sovereignty in the South China Sea in response to a petition by the Philippines, and the ruling is likely to be disadvantageous to China. Under such circumstances, it is a big plus for China if it were to be able to show the international community that in collaboration with Russian military vessels, it can carry out operations similar to the U.S.'s Freedom of Navigation Operation, and possibly drive a wedge between the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Indeed, Russia's moves in the South China Sea are complicating the situation. There are observations that China and Russia deliberately sailed into the area in coordination with each other in the latest incident.

"It's unthinkable that Chinese and Russian warships could have been simultaneously sailing in such a large area unless the two countries had arranged to do so with some intention," said a source involved in Japan-China relations.

In recent years, Russia has stepped up cooperation with China toward establishing a new international order. While maintaining a neutral position on the South China Sea issue, Moscow has warned the United States and other countries against intervening from outside.

Some observers in China say that the Chinese warship's entry into the contiguous zone near the Senkaku Islands "has demonstrated to the world that Beijing and Moscow are in close strategic cooperation," as Shi Yinhong, professor at Renmin University of China, puts it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit China in late June. An international stage on which China and Russia, both countries that defeated Japan in World War II, can more easily assert their military alliance, is in its preparatory stages.

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