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A member of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force looks out the window of a PC3 reconnaissance plane on to the East China Sea. “We’re watching the Chinese closely, they’re watching us closely. It’s a standoff,” explained one crewman. (Sean Gallagher for The Globe and Mail)
A member of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force looks out the window of a PC3 reconnaissance plane on to the East China Sea. “We’re watching the Chinese closely, they’re watching us closely. It’s a standoff,” explained one crewman. (Sean Gallagher for The Globe and Mail)

Dangerous moves in the East China Sea could bring Japan, China to armed conflict Add to ...

The Japanese surveillance plane is an hour into its flight when it spots the first Chinese flags of the day, red banners atop a quartet of fishing boats deep in Japan’s territorial waters.

The P-3 Orion aircraft, designed for hunting submarines, banks for a closer look at the bobbing blue and white ships. From a seat in the plane, high above the East China Sea, the boats look like chess pieces, being advanced up an endless board of black water and white-capped waves.

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The Chinese fishing craft are mere pawns, pushing forth in groups to test the response from the Japanese side as Beijing tries to assert its claim to a quintet of islands, and their surrounding waters, that Japan has controlled for decades. Later that day, the rooks and knights appear – China Marine Surveillance craft, sent nearly every day to police the area as if it were Beijing’s to patrol. They are cautiously matched ship for ship by boats from the Japan Coast Guard, the two sides often closing to within 100 metres of each other but never – yet – colliding.

Out of sight, for now, are the truly powerful pieces, the warships of two of the world’s most potent navies. As the showdown over the ownership of the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea drags into its fourth month, neither side is showing signs of backing down. And with nationalism rising on both sides amid a delicate transition of power in China and ahead of a charged election in Japan, there’s growing worry that one side or the other will be tempted to escalate the situation – potentially bringing the world’s second and third-largest economies into armed conflict.

It’s a contest of nerves. Chinese ships sailing near the islands have begun displaying digital signs warning Japanese craft: “You are in waters administered by the People’s Republic of China. You are already breaching the law. Move away immediately.” China’s state-controlled media have reported that active-duty warships are being transferred from the navy to its China Marine Surveillance fleet, raising the likelihood of gunships being deployed to the disputed waters. Last week, five Chinese warships sailed through Japan’s Miyako Strait, just north of the disputed islands, on their way to an unannounced exercise.

The almost daily appearance of the Chinese boats, often sailing right into Japanese-controlled waters around the islands, and the fact the Japanese are unwilling or unable to stop them, are changing the status quo that has held here for the past 41 years, ever since the United States ended its post-Second World War occupation of Okinawa, and handed administration of the entire prefecture – including the contested islands – back to Japan.

“The Chinese navy and military presence is expanding day by day,” Rear-Admiral Isao Ooseto, commander of Fleet Air Wing Five, the Japanese naval unit that deploys the P-3 surveillance planes, said in an interview at the navy’s Okinawa headquarters.

Our plane returned there following a two-hour flight during which it sent back a steady stream of reports on the ships it saw near the disputed waters. “These territorial waters are garnering a lot of attention, and these waters are our responsibility, and we are on high alert,” Rear Adm. Ooseto said.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao both attended a recent East Asian summit in Cambodia, but would not even meet each other. U.S. President Barack Obama was left to plead with the two sides to reduce tensions – his government was recently handed a report written by a delegation of veteran officials who warned Japan and China could be headed towards war over the islands, situated southwest of Okinawa and north of Taiwan, that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu.

The daily game of dare at sea unfolds in parallel with political dramas in Beijing and Tokyo.

The island dispute, and the swelling anti-Japanese sentiment in China, has been used by the nationalist left of the Communist Party to promote its cause during the once-a-decade transfer of power.

The showdown with Japan in the East China Sea will be one of the first tests faced by new Communist leader Xi Jinping, who on Nov. 15 also assumed control of the country’s military. But it is not the only flashpoint. China is also involved in escalating territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea. Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, and says that on Jan. 1 it will start boarding foreign ships that “illegally” enter waters over which it claims sovereignty.

Tokyo, too, is having its politics blown about by the tempest in the East China Sea. The right-wing Liberal Democratic Party chose former prime minister Shinzo Abe – known for his anti-Chinese views – to lead it into a Dec. 16 election, which the party looks set to win. Meanwhile, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, the outspoken nationalist who instigated the recent crisis by trying to purchase the islands – he warned that Japan risks becoming “the sixth star on China’s national flag” if it didn’t stand up to Beijing – has resigned to run for national office as leader of a new far-right movement that has unexpectedly moved into second in opinion polls, ahead of Mr. Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan. Mr. Ishihara is expected to campaign on a “relaxation” of Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution.

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