The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China issues video of aerial games of chicken — and maritime collisions — in Asia’s seas

BEIJING — Temperatures are rising in Asia’s oceans as China and its rivals Japan and Vietnam engage in perilous airborne games of chicken and crude maritime shows of strength as they try to enforce their claims to contested waters and islands.

This week, China took its beef with its neighbors to the court of international opinion, issuing fresh video that purports to show Japanese fighters flying dangerously close to a Chinese fighter over the disputed waters of the East China Sea, and Vietnamese ships ramming Chinese boats in the South China Sea.

The release of the video footage was, Beijing said, a response to accusations — from Japan, that Chinese planes were responsible for the latest bout of aerial brinkmanship, and from Vietnam, that Chinese boats had been ramming their ships and had actually sunk a fishing trawler last month.

In the video below, filmed Wednesday and released Thursday, China says a Japanese fighter approaches to within 100 feet of a Chinese plane. China’s Defense Ministry described Tokyo’s attempt to blame Beijing for the incident as a “vile” attempt to smear the image of China’s military and “turn black into white.”

The tension with Japan is particularly worrying, security experts say, posing the risk that an aerial collision could spark an escalation of military tensions between the powerful Asian rivals.

“When you are down to 100 feet, and flying a supersonic jet, bad things can happen,” said Chris Johnson of the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, adding that the ability of both sides to de-escalate in the event of an accident is complicated by the fraught nature of their relations and “the absence of any solid back channel” for negotiations.

Indeed, this is exactly the concern that the U.S. government expressed when it objected to China’s decision last year to unilaterally declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over large swaths of the East China Sea, including over islands administered by Japan.

Japan says it scrambled fighters against Chinese planes 415 times in the year that ended in March, an increase of 36 percent on the year, while in waters near the disputed island chain, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, patrol ships from both countries have regularly been playing cat-and-mouse.

Meanwhile, tensions with Vietnam have also risen alarmingly since China towed an oil rig into disputed waters, setting off riots in Vietnam that caused several deaths.

The video below, released Friday, purports to show Chinese ships being rammed by Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea last month. China says Vietnamese boats have rammed their vessels 1,547 times since the stand-off began.

Here is one of several Vietnamese videos released earlier that appear to show Chinese vessels doing the ramming, in this case targeting Vietnamese police vessels. It was released by Vietnam's Foreign Affairs Ministry on June 5:

Another video, broadcast by Vietnam Television (VTV) recently, shows a Vietnamese fishing boat sinking after it was hit by what was allegedly a Chinese vessel.

Johnson said the reported presence of Chinese naval vessels in some of these incidents, “in the middle of the scrum, rather than over the horizon,” also represented another dangerous escalation of tensions, “because when you put stuff with guns in a small space, accidents happen.”

But China denied Vietnamese accusations that its naval ships have been involved in the clashes.

China and Vietnam are both one-party states, which to some degree use nationalism to bolster the internal legitimacy of the Communist Party, making it harder for either side to climb down at the risk of appearing weak, experts point out.