- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2013

Japan scrambled fighter jets Monday after an unidentified drone flew near a small island chain controlled by Tokyo that is at the center of a bitter territorial dispute with China.

Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force sent an unspecified number of jets to the area of the Senkaku Islands, a Defense Ministry official told Agence France Presse in Tokyo.

The ministry said it did not know the origin or nationality of the unmanned aircraft, which did not enter Japanese airspace.

China has an advanced drone program, according to a report in June from the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

In particular, China’s “white hull” navy — consisting of unarmed or lightly armed vessels from its coast guard, fisheries agency and other government departments — has announced it is deploying drones.

Beijing’s “maritime law enforcement agencies are integrating [drones] into their operations,” notes the commission’s report.

Last year, the official Chinese press reported that the State Oceanic Administration was building “land-based infrastructure to support the increased usage of [drones] for maritime surveillance via remote sensing,” the report says.

China increasingly has used its maritime law enforcement surface vessels to press its claims to the island chain, which is called “Diaoyu” in Chinese. Beijing’s white hull navy has dogged Japanese water around the islands, which sit astride rich fishing waters and atop massive oil and gas reserves.

Last week, four Chinese coast guard ships sailed into the so-called contiguous zone that surrounds Japanese territorial waters around the disputed islands.

In December, a single-engined propeller plane from the State Oceanic Administration breached Tokyo’s airspace over the islands, prompting the launch of Japanese F-15 fighter jets.

That was the first known incursion into Japanese airspace by a Chinese aircraft, Tokyo said at the time.

Monday’s scramble of jets was the third in two weeks, AFP reported, but the first involving a suspected drone.

In Beijing, when asked about the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “I am not aware of the situation.”