In what seemed a routine meeting between American defense secretary Leon Panetta and his Japanese counterpart Satoshi Morimoto last week, The Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the two allies agreed to “consider conducting surveillance” by unmanned spy aircraft over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, the competing claims between the two Asian nations involve a deeply emotional issue and stir nationalist passions on both sides. It dates back to 1895 when Imperial Japan humiliated a weakened and divided China and took control of the islands.
After receding in importance in Sino-Japanese relations for most of the last century, during which China was alternately grappling with internal strife and civil war, the dispute flared up again in 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler crashed into a Japanese coast guard vessel.
The Chinese captain was arrested which fueled a nationalist outrage in China. After two weeks of escalating tensions, which saw China suspend all senior level meetings with Japan, encouraged its citizens to cancel trips to the country and suspend the export of rare earth minerals, Japan relinquished and released the captain.
Concerned about China’s possible future actions over the islands, Japan and the United States have been elevating their level of cooperation diplomatically and militarily since.
At the Pentagon last Friday, the two countries announced the eventual deployment of the Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft to Okinawa “to enable Marines to fly faster and farther… to remote islands in Japan.” The Osprey is a tiltrotor aircraft, giving it the ability to land like a helicopter and fly with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft.
Morimoto also said that Japan is moving forward with its “dynamic defense cooperation” with the United States which will mean even closer ties between the two militaries and the establishment of joint training on Guam and Northern Mariana.
For its part, China has seen escalating tensions with its other neighbors over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. The United States have also deepened their security relationships with Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam in that area.
Thus, the announcement last week at the Pentagon and speculation about the deployment of American drones to the Far East, while reaffirming the support of an important American ally in Japan, promises to add to the tensions with China across the region.