TOKYO (AFP) - Two Russian fighter jets violated Japanese airspace on Thursday as Tokyo scrambled its own planes in response, the defence ministry said, reportedly the first such incident in five years.
Japan’s foreign ministry lodged a formal protest over the incursion by a pair of Russian Su-27 fighters at about 3:00 pm local time (0600 GMT). “Today, around 3:00 pm, military fighters belonging to Russian Federation breached our nation’s airspace above territorial waters off Hokkaido’s Rishiri island,” the foreign ministry said. It was the first breach of Japanese airspace by Russia since February 2008, according to Japanese media reports Thursday.
The incident came hours after hawkish Japanese premier Shinzo Abe - who swept to power in December with pledges to get tough on diplomacy - offered apparently conciliatory comments toward Moscow over the Russian-administered Southern Kurils, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
Abe’s tone was in marked contrast to his uncompromising stance on a dispute with Beijing over the sovereignty of a different set of disputed islands. “There is no change in my resolve to do everything I can towards sealing a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the issue of the Northern Territories,” Abe said.
In December, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to restart talks on signing a peace treaty formally ending the hostilities of World War II that has been stymied by the dispute.
“In the telephone talks, I told President Putin I would make efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution so as to ultimately solve the issue of the Northern Territories,” Abe told a government-backed rally of around 2,000 former islanders and their descendants in Tokyo. Soviet forces seized the isles, which stretch out into rich fishing waters off the northern coast of Hokkaido, in the dying days of WWII and drove out Japanese residents.
Japan’s prime minister said Thursday the “window of dialogue” with China must remain open, even as he reiterated his rebuke to Beijing over a naval confrontation on the high seas.
Shinzo Abe said an incident in which a Chinese frigate locked its weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese warship was “extremely regrettable”, as tension grows over the sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea. “But we will not close the window of dialogue. This is most important,” Abe said. “I would like China to return to a more open attitude towards our strategic partnership.”
Abe Wednesday had described the Chinese action as “dangerous” and “provocative”. Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told parliament the Chinese radar lock amounted to a “threat of force” but he called for some mechanism to allow defence authorities to communicate with each other.
On Thursday, Beijing shot back that Tokyo has been “hyping up crisis and deliberately creating tension to smear China’s image”. The Japanese prime minister has repeatedly said there is no room for negotiation over the East China Sea islands. But he has also stressed the row should not harm overall ties with Beijing, an important trading partner.