WSJ: TOKYO—Japan said Russian fighter jets intruded its airspace for the first time in five years, raising tensions between the two countries at the same time that Tokyo is engaged in a similar high-stakes tangle with China.
The simultaneous spats on both Japan's northern and southern borders underscore the regional security challenges faced by a new Japanese prime minister elected on a promise to toughen his country's defense of its islands. It comes as the U.S.—Japan's chief military ally—has vowed to raise its presence in Asia, but U.S. is also facing across-the-board budget cuts and seeking to reduce its global military footprint as it winds down a decade of wars.
"Certainly, they are testing us and using the opportunity created by the Chinese diversion," said Narushige Michishita, a Northeast Asia security expert at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "The Russians know that whatever they do, it will not look as bad as what the Chinese are doing," he added.
"Japan, together with the U.S., is concentrating its resources to the south now" to focus on China, said Mamoru Sato, a former lieutenant general in Japan's air force. "This would put Japan in a situation in which it has to consider two-front war."
Japan's foreign ministry said two Russian Su-27s violated airspace for just over a minute Thursday near its northernmost main island of Hokkaido, and that Japan then scrambled four F-2 fighter jets. The Japanese government launched a "severe protest" with the Russian embassy, demanding that Moscow investigate.
The Russian government denied that it entered Japan's airspace. "Flights of military aircraft are … carried out in strict accordance with the international rules governing airspace and do not violate the border of other states," defense ministry spokesman Col. Alexander Gordeyev told Interfax news agency.
The incident came on the day that the Japanese government sets aside for an annual rally demanding the return of territories seized by Russia from Japan at the end of World War II—and as Russia was conducting military exercises around those islands. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended an event in Tokyo and told the crowd of "my resolve to do everything I can" to negotiate a return of the four islands.
The alleged Russian intrusion came less than two months after Japan accused China of illegally entering its airspace for the first time, in mid-December, amid an escalating territorial row in the East China Sea. The standoff between Tokyo and Beijing turned considerably more tense earlier this week, when Japan accused China of locking weapons-guiding radar onto Japanese naval forces twice in January—an act that often precedes firing shots.
The Chinese foreign ministry gave Beijing's first official response to those charges Thursday, saying Japan "artificially hyped the crisis, created tensions, and smeared China's image." Japan's foreign ministry responded with a statement saying the incident "was an extremely provocative act that risks causing an unforeseen incident."
While Japan has been much more focused on its territorial dispute with China in recent months, Thursday's scramble against Russia was a reminder that the northern part of the Sea of Japan facing Russia can be as tense as the East China Sea to the south. In fact, Japan in recent years has regularly conducted more scrambles against Russian jets nearing its airspace than it has against Chinese jets.
For the nine months ended Dec. 31, Japan had conducted 180 scrambles against Russia, compared with 160 against Chinese planes, according to the Japanese defense ministry.
"In my view, Russia is gradually getting engaged in the race over the rights to various things around this area," Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki, the top uniformed official of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, said last month. "We must watch out for China of course, but also the Korean peninsula. And we must have a solid preparation for the North as well," he added.
Defense analysts said it was likely no coincidence that Russia made its move Thursday, with Japan's military focused on China.
"They may be just testing the Japanese since they are preoccupied with the islands issue" in the East China Sea, said James Hardy, a senior analyst for Asian Pacific region with Jane's Defense Weekly. "It's been reported that the Japanese had all four of their AWACS down near the Senkakus," he added, referring to the southern island chain controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu. Japan owns four Boeing E-767 airborne warning and control system aircraft.
"So maybe the Russians were testing to see if that was true or not," Mr. Hardy said. "But Japan has overlapping land-based radar. There aren't any gaps that we know of."