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Originally published Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 8:35 PM

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China steps up pressure on Japan in island dispute

The Chinese sortie last week over disputed islands was part of a steady escalation in the air, on the sea and in public statements by China against Japan.

The New York Times

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BEIJING — A modest-looking twin-propeller Chinese aircraft loaded with radar and other surveillance equipment swooped low over the waters close to disputed islands in the East China Sea on Thursday, the latest move by China to increase the pressure on Japan over who owns a group of uninhabited rocks.

By itself, the less than 30-minute flight by the 9-year-old plane into what Japan considers its airspace did not amount to much. Japanese F-15 jets were sent, but the Chinese plane had left by the time they got to the area.

But the Chinese sortie was part of a steady escalation in the air, on the sea and in public statements by China against Japan, a strategy that analysts say was fixed upon three months ago to take back the islands known as Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. They say the strategy is being overseen by the new leader, Xi Jinping.

China began implementing the plan in September, when Chinese law-enforcement boats started patrolling the waters close to the islands. Those patrols continue almost daily, but last week, China increased the pressure by sending four Chinese warships, returning from an exercise elsewhere, to waters near the islands. The ships cruised along for five hours and then left, Chinese state news media said.

Then came the flyover, described in detail by Chinese news media, which boasted that the plane had stayed long enough to capture images of the uninhabited rocky outcrops.

Official protest

In effect, analysts say, Chinese authorities are trying to unilaterally change the status quo of the islands, which have been administered by Japan for decades, attempting to use the air and naval patrols as evidence that they are in charge.

"China is now challenging Japan's effective control of the islands with ships on the water and planes in the air," said M. Taylor Fravel, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When Japan lodged an official protest about the plane's incursion, Chinese officials said the airspace, like the islands below, was theirs.

Japan, which regularly patrols the islands, argues that the Chinese have no case. Japan says the Chinese began claiming the islands were historically theirs only in the early 1970s, after evidence emerged that the seabeds nearby might hold rich oil and natural-gas deposits.

The latest dispute over the islands began months ago, when the right-wing governor of Tokyo suggested that his city might buy some of them back from a Japanese family to bolster Japan's control by erecting structures on them.

The central government then bought the islands, saying it was trying to reduce tensions and would not build structures there, but China viewed the purchase as a provocation.

Sunday's election

The stepped-up pressure by China has come as the Japanese prepare to go to the polls Sunday in an election that is likely to return to power the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

Although Abe has tried to improve relations with China, he is also known as a hawk and has campaigned on strengthening Japan's defense forces against China's mounting challenges. The Japanese navy is already considered one of the world's most sophisticated.

In China, Xi was appointed as head of a powerful interagency group formed in September at the top of the Chinese government to oversee China's maritime disputes. That was two months before he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party and before he became the civilian head of the military at the 18th Party Congress.

For three months, Xi has had a critical say in how China conducts its strategy with Japan, Western and Chinese analysts say.

At the same time, China has put greater focus on its growing maritime capacities. The departing leader, Hu Jintao, said in a farewell address that China aimed to become a maritime power.

A highlight of Xi's just-finished tour of southern China was a visit to one of China's most advanced destroyers, the Haikou, which often patrols the South China Sea, another disputed area off China's shores.

The dispute with Japan carries great resonance with the Chinese public.

The older generation recalls the history of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, when Japan humiliated China at sea and annexed the islands. Many people also remember the brutal World War II Japanese occupation of China.

The younger generation bristles with the themes of a revised 1990s nationalistic school curriculum, even as they buy classy Japanese cars, electronics and fashion.

The economic fallout from the dispute has hurt Japan but may not leave China unscathed, either.

Japanese economists say Japanese auto sales in China, where top-tier Japanese brands are a status symbol, slumped precipitously in September and October. There has been a slight recovery since those lows, they said.

Some Japanese manufacturers in China, including Toyota and Sony, suspended production after anti-Japanese protests related to the islands and laid off Chinese workers who demanded higher wages when they returned.

Some Chinese economists have warned the government that large-scale boycotts of Japanese goods could lead to big job losses in a softening Chinese economy. With little prospect of a return to more normal relations anytime soon, some Japanese factories in China are beginning to seek alternative locations in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, where wages are lower and employees are less demanding, according to Japanese surveys.

As the dispute drags on, China's words and actions in international forums have escalated, too. The foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, wrote in an article in The People's Daily recently that China would "resolutely fight against the Japanese side" over what he called the illegal purchase of the islands.

On Friday, China submitted documents to the United Nations detailing its claims to the continental shelf in the East China Sea, another step toward establishing its legal rights.

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