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Tension In East China Sea Has Region On Edge


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. It's still hard to believe that Japan and China could ever go to war over a few specks of land in the East China Sea, but here's a reminder of how easily war could come. Japan has disclosed that one of its navy ships was targeted by the radar of a Chinese navy ship. That form of radar is used for targeting weapons.

Japanese and Chinese ships have been passing near each other, as their governments dispute islands so small that nobody lives on them. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Japanese Defense officials said the radar incident occurred last Wednesday, when the ships were less than two miles apart. Here is Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, at a news conference in Tokyo.


ITSUNORI ONODERA: (Through Translator) Directing such radar is very abnormal. We recognize it would create a very dangerous situation if a single misstep occurred.

LANGFITT: Ukeru Magosaki is a former Japanese diplomat who headed the foreign ministry's intelligence branch. He says Japanese are taking this incident seriously.

UKERU MAGOSAKI: We are very much concerned. This action is beyond our expectation in a way, because this is a military action which might lead to the military confrontation.

LANGFITT: At a regularly scheduled news briefing today, China's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Japan's claim. Shen Dingli, a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, wondered if Japan might have done some radar targeting itself and provoked a Chinese response. But, he added...

SHEN DINGLI: If they have never done it, I think China has problem. It's like I have a gun, I point to you, but without shooting.

LANGFITT: Territorial disputes are common in the waters off China. But Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt says the stakes of this one are potentially staggering. Kleine-Ahlbrandt covers Northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group.

STEPHANIE KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: The fact that you're looking at the world's second and third-largest economies, meaning that any real conflict between them would bring the international economy to a halt.

LANGFITT: And, she notes, the U.S. has a treaty to defend Japan.

KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: The consequences of a conflict between China and Japan is already serious. If you add in the U. S. as well, you're talking about a world war. But I think it's important to note that none of the parties want a military conflict.

LANGFITT: The islands dispute has been fueled by several factors, including China's growing capabilities and Japan's miscalculations. Last fall, Japan bought some of the islands. That provoked - or provided a pretext for - China to send planes and ships to the area. Kleine-Ahlbrandt says China also grew more assertive after the West was weakened by the global financial crisis.

KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: Then you started to have the sense of, well, now we're reassuming our rightful place in the world. We once were, you know, a very, very strong country. We went through a hundred years of humiliation at the hands of imperialist powers, etc., and now we're resuming our rightful place.

LANGFITT: One of those humiliations came in 1895, when China lost a war to Japan. Shen Dingli of Shanghai's Fudan University says Japan took control of the islands.

DINGLI: We think it's our territory. Japan is not entitled to enter.

LANGFITT: The U.S. then took control of the islands after it defeated Japan in World War II. America returned them to Japan in the early 1970s. Shen Dingli sums it up the Chinese position like this.

DINGLI: Therefore, China has a problem with both the U.S. and Japan. China considers that I am entitled. No one else will be entitled.

LANGFITT: In recent months, the U.S. has urged both sides to exercise restraint. But suspicions between Chinese and American forces are palpable. In January, a top U.S. Navy intelligence officer, Capt. James Fanell, gave an unusually blunt assessment of China's ambitions. The website Defense News posted a video of his comments at a conference in San Diego.


CAPT. JAMES FANELL: In my opinion, China is knowingly, operationally and incrementally seizing maritime rights of its neighbors under the rubric of a maritime history that is not only contested in the international community but has largely been fabricated by Chinese government propaganda bureaus in order to, quote-unquote "educate" the populous about China's rich maritime history.

LANGFITT: Although Fanell was not speaking for the American Navy, there's no doubt China's military heard his message loud and clear. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.