China has forcefully protested Hilary Clinton’s recent remarks that the U.S., although it takes no position on the sovereignty of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, opposes “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration.” There is no doubt that China owns the islands, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said, adding that the “extreme tension” over the islands is the result of Japan’s “illegal purchase” of them, as the BBC reports.
This heated rhetoric comes amid an episode of what we might call fighter jet diplomacy: China sent a surveillance plane to scout out the islands two weeks ago, Japan scrambled its fighter jets in response, and then the Chinese also sent out their own jets. As Jane Perlez commented in the NYT:
For now the Chinese military wants to avoid armed conflict over the islands . . . but its longer-term goal is to pressure Japan to give up its administration of the islands. That would give China a break in what is known in China as the ‘first island chain,’ a string including the Diaoyu, that prevents China’s growing ballistic submarine fleet from having unobserved access to the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan is part of the ‘first island chain,’ as are smaller islands controlled by Vietnam and the Philippines.
As Perlez goes on to point out, the presence of armed Chinese and Japanese fighter jets in the same airspace greatly increases the chances of a mistake leading to a serious conflict. This is a fast-moving story, and one that greatly increases the difficulties for American diplomacy.