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China once again challenged Japanese claims to a disputed set of islands in the East China Sea, this time by sending a plane to patrol the area, which prompted Japan to scramble its own air force. On Thursday morning, Japan launched eight F-15 fighter jets to intercept the small patrol plane that belongs to China's Ocean Administration. That plane reportedly broadcast China's own claims over the disputed island chain, ordering Japanese coast guard vessels out of the area, but by the time the Japanese aircraft arrived the Chinese plane was gone. Japan has already lodged a formal protest with Beijing.

The incident may spark a new round of street protests on both sides of the China Sea, much like the ones that were seen in September when Japan announced it was buying the islands they call Senkaku from private owners. The sovereignty of the tiny chain of uninhabited islands has been in dispute for more than 40 years, since China declared a historical claim to land dating to the 14th century. Over the years there have been several showdowns between boats, both civilian and military, in the waters off the island chain, but this is the first incident to involve aircraft.

Japan has effectively controlled and maintained the islands since the late 1800s, though they were actually owned by a private family until September, when the government paid to nationalize the territory. China objected, leading to a flurry of anti-Japanese protests on the mainland that mostly targeted Japanese-owned businesses.

While the two sides may not be willing to go to war over a set of empty (though potentially oil-rich) rocks, a strong sense of national pride prevents either country from backing off their claims. It doesn't help matters that today marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the occupation of Nanking, perhaps the most brutal of war-time atrocities committed by imperial Japanese soldiers during the 1930s and a continuing source of hostility between the two nations.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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