Japan made it clear last year that it would resist China's encroachment over the disputed Senkaku/Daiyoutai Islands, even when China expanded its confrontation in December from the sea to the air.

While the area has seen confrontations between Japanese coast guard ships and Chinese vessels that conduct coast guard missions, these increased in 2012. Between March and November, 47 Chinese ship incursions were recorded. From April to December, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled fighters 160 times in response to Chinese aircraft in the East China Sea, up from 156 in 2011.

China's goal in challenging Japan's administration of the Senkakus, recognized by Washington since the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, has been to force Japan into acknowledging its claim to the islands, which would legitimize subsequent actions. Washington usually remains silent about the issue, but during a Jan. 18 news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the islands “are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration.”

Beijing is unlikely to stop pushing. From April to July 2012, China held its ground in barring Philippine ships from the Scarborough Shoal, 240 km (about 150 mi.) from the Philippine island of Luzon and 860 km from China's Hainan Island. China claims practically the entire South China Sea as its territory, and since 1974 has executed a strategy to impose its control that includes outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Island groups. China also claims the uninhabited Senkaku/Daiyoutai Islands, and may be setting its sights on the Sakashima group 170 km to the south.

On Sept. 19 and Oct. 1, 2012, China sent unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the islands. Asian sources suggest more recent flights were by converted J-6 fighters with surveillance pods. But on Dec. 13, in response to China sending a Y-12 surveillance aircraft over the Senkakus, Japan scrambled eight F-15J fighters and an E-2C AWACS aircraft. The Y-12s flew similar probing missions later that month and in January.

On Jan. 10, north of the Senkakus, Japan scrambled two F-15s to monitor a Chinese Y-8 surveillance aircraft, which prompted China to send J-10 fighters to monitor the F-15s. Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported on Jan. 10 that China scrambled J-7 and J-10 fighters to monitor a U.S. Navy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft and a U.S. Air Force C-130 near the region, which prompted the Navy to send an EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft as well. The day ended with reports that Japan was considering “warning shots” to ward off Chinese aircraft. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told Chinese TV that Japan would fire warning flares. Chinese Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian responded that if flares hit Chinese aircraft, it could mean war.

China's actions may force Tokyo to better defend the Sakashimas. But on Jan. 15, Onodera denied reports that Japan was considering deploying F-15s to an airfield on Shimoji Island, which is used for airliner training and is 195 km from the Senkakus, instead of to the nearest Japanese airbase on Okinawa. On Jan. 27, he announced a $410 million increase in Japan's defense budget, the first in 11 years.

Washington has taken notice. On Jan. 15, F-22 fighters deployed to Kadena AB, Okinawa. While they may deter China from more aggressive aerial activity, Japan's surveillance and fighter aircraft will likely have a busy year responding to challenges.