The Japanese Air Force is scrambling to deal with a growing number of Chinese aircraft snooping around. In the last year Japanese aircraft have gone up 306 times to confront Chinese aircraft coming too close to Japanese air space. This was the first time Chinese intrusions exceeded Russian ones. In the previous year nearly 43 percent of the time the sorties were for Chinese aircraft. That's almost three times as many Chinese intrusions as in the previous year. Meanwhile, Russian intrusions have been declining. In 2011, Russia still accounted for 52 percent of the intrusions, and in the last year Chinese intrusions were 23 percent more frequent than the Russian ones.
The Japanese believe that one cause for this shift is more electronic and maritime patrol aircraft available to the Chinese and a desire to gather as much information as possible about the strongest potential foe in the area. But the main reason is the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands near Okinawa. China and Japan both claim these uninhabited islets, which are 167 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and 426 kilometers southeast of Japan's Okinawa and have a total area of 6.3 square kilometers. Taiwan also claims the Senkakus, which were discovered by Chinese fishermen in the 16th century and taken over by Japan in 1879. They are valuable now because of the 380 kilometer economic zone nations can claim in their coastal waters. This includes fishing and possible underwater oil and gas fields.
In 2011, the 355 Japanese anti-intrusion sorties were up 17 percent over the previous year, while in 2010, sorties by were up 29 percent. Now they are up again. All this should be measured against Cold War activity, which peaked in 1984, at 944 interception sorties. After the Cold War ended in 1991 (when there were 488 sorties) the number of intrusions fell through the 1990s, but in the last decade the number has increased.
These intrusions have been increasing sharply over the last five years. Early on the Japanese launched many aircraft for each intrusion. For example, in 2008, a Russian Tu-95 entered Japanese airspace, near an uninhabited island about 600 kilometers south of Tokyo. Although the Russian aircraft was in Japanese airspace for only about three minutes the Japanese launched 22 aircraft to intercept. This force included two AWACs aircraft and twenty fighters. It had been two years since a Russian aircraft entered Japanese airspace without permission and that explained the massive response. But as the intrusions increased, the number of interceptors sent out for each declined.
One explanation for all the Russian activity has been Japanese diplomats pressuring the Russians to return the Kurile Islands (off northern Japan). This has caused a lot of tension and the Russians have responded with more aerial activity. This sort of thing also goes over well inside Russia. But now the Russians are cutting back.