- The Washington Times - Friday, April 22, 2016

The number of times that Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force rushed its fighter jets into the air to respond to Chinese military muscle flexing in North Asia has increased dramatically during recent months.

So-called “scrambles” by Japanese combat planes more than doubled in the first three months of 2016, according to a report by Reuters on Friday, which cited the Japanese Defense Ministry as saying the responses underscore a “tougher security environment” from a year ago.

It was not immediately clear what specific Chinese actions prompted the Japanese uptick. But Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff spokesman Kazuhiko Fukuda told reporters that the spike in numbers was tied to “concrete activities.”

Japan’s fighter jets rushed 198 times to prevent possible Chinese incursions between January and the end of March, compared with just 93 scrambles during the same period last year. In the year that ended on March 31, such scrambles rose 23 percent from a year earlier to a record 571, according to the Reuters report.

“The numbers of scrambles alone do not tell the whole story, but we should recognize that the increase … indicates a tougher security environment,” Mr. Fukuda said.

“China is modernizing its air force and is clearly aiming to improve its air combat capability in faraway skies,” he said. “Concrete activities based on those targets are reflected in these numbers.”

Beijing has prompted unease in Washington over the past year with its construction of man-made islands that U.S. officials say are designed to host Chinese military assets on disputed islands in the South China Sea — one of the world’s busiest waterways, through which some $5 trillion in international trade is shipped annually.

There were reports in February that the Chinese had deployed anti-aircraft missiles and fighter jets to the islands, which are the subject of competing sovereignty claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others.

At the time, U.S. Navy Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the top American military commander in the Pacific, warned lawmakers in Washington that China is bent on achieving “hegemony in East Asia.”

The Obama administration has for years called for the regional sovereignty disputes to be resolved peacefully. The administration has also worked with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — which does not include China — to level veiled criticism at Beijing for stoking tensions in the region.

Japan, meanwhile, has been locked in its own sovereignty dispute with China over a separate group of tiny islands that are located in the East China Sea — a historic regional rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing that stems at least partly from Japanese military aggression during World War II.

Reuters noted Friday that Japanese and Chinese patrol ships and fighter jets routinely shadow each other near uninhabited East China Sea islets that are presently controlled by Japan — raising concern that an unintended collision or other accidents could develop into a larger clash.

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