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China regularly holds maritime drills in the fall, but "sources close to the military" said the drills were related to a territorial dispute that has been the source of recent flare-up between China and Japan, the Financial Times reports.
Japan and China have long been at odds over a string of islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, but tensions ratcheted up last month when the Japanese government agreed to buy three of the islands that were privately owned by a Japanese businessman. The incident brought relations between the countries to a 40-year low and prompted the cancellation of celebrations planned for last month to fete the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in an in-depth report on the dispute last month.
"Relations are worse than they have ever been in 40 years," Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Japanese politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the Monitor. "I don't see much chance of a war; but I think Japan is preparing for one, and we should, too."
The Japanese government said that the intent was not to challenge China, but to prevent the islands' sale to the governor of Tokyo, a vocal nationalist who might have used them to antagonize China. The explanation did not quiet Chinese anger.
The exercises also come on the heels of visits earlier this week by Japanese opposition leader Shinzo Abe as well as two cabinet ministers to the controversial Yasukuni shrine. The shrine, which honors Japan's war dead – among them 14 class A war criminals convicted after World War II – is seen in China as a "symbol of Japan's military atrocities" during its decades-long occupation of much of the region until Japan's defeat in 1945, Bloomberg reports.
Chinese news agency Xinhua said the officials' visit "would further poison bilateral ties" and "added insult to injury," according to Bloomberg.
Drills like those held today are a routine event, but military sources told the Financial Times "this drill could only be read as directed at the island crisis."
“This exercise will simulate a situation where foreign law enforcement vessels obstruct and interfere with our maritime surveillance and fisheries administration vessels on a mission to safeguard maritime rights and enforce the law,” said state media, referring to a statement from the East Sea Fleet which is participating in the drill.
According to the statement, the simulated scenario includes a collision in which the Chinese ships are damaged and some patrol staff are hurt and fall into the water. The East Sea Fleet then “sends a frigate, a hospital ship, a tugboat, advanced fighters and helicopters for support, cover and emergency rescue.”
“With this content, this drill must be seen in the context of the Diaoyu Islands,” said a source familiar with the military’s intentions.
According to Xinhua, the Navy held the exercises with the fishery administration and marine surveillance agency in order to "improve coordination" and their ability to respond to emergencies. Eleven vessels and eight aircraft were involved in the effort.
The Associated Press reports that Japan plans to hold similar drills with the US later this year centered around a theoretical challenge of "taking a remote island back from a foreign intruder."
Multiple experts interviewed by the Monitor said that they don't think either country wants to go to war. The real cause for concern is that it would take little to tip the countries into open conflict with tensions at a slow boil for so long, and both taking steps to intimidate the other.
So far, hostilities have been limited to water-cannon duels, as happened Sept. 24 between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels. But "when you have that many boats sailing around, the potential for mishap is quite high," points out Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The danger, adds Valérie Niquet, a China analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, is that a collision, a sinking, or a fatality "could start something that would be difficult to stop," especially since China and Japan have no procedures in place to handle maritime crises.