Japanese officials have told their U.S. counterparts they hope Washington will continue EP-3 surveillance flights near China and not “cave in” to pressure from Beijing to end them.

As a close neighbor of China, Japan is acutely aware of Beijing’s military build-up over the past several years — including Beijing’s deployment of hundreds of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, most of them facing Taiwan.

However, officials in Tokyo, the Japan Times newspaper said yesterday, “are worried that Chinese bullying and aggressive intercepts could be turned on” Japanese surveillance flights, as well.

Japanese P-3 on patrol.

Japan’s own fleet of P-3C aircraft have been flying routine flights over the Senkaku islands, in the East China Sea, for years. Japan operates 104 P-3s, some bought from the U.S., but most built in Japan under license from the U.S. The United States operates about 300, but the Navy only has a dozen EP-3s — minus the one still stranded on China’s Hainan Island.

And China has recently deployed one of its most prized naval assets — two Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyers — with the East Sea Fleet.

The group of eight uninhabited Senkaku Islands are located about 120 miles northeast of Taiwan and have been claimed and occupied by Japan since its 1894 war with China. But in recent years, Beijing has demanded that Tokyo return the islands to China.

Also, China has been suspicious of Japan since Japanese Imperial Army forces invaded China in the years preceding World War II. Chinese history teaches students about the brutality of occupying Japanese forces.

Japanese officials have strongly voiced their concern with the Bush administration, in hopes that the Pentagon will be permitted to continue the flights, which are as much in Japan’s national interest as in the United States’ interests, the paper said.

“The memory of Tiananmen Square is fading for many Japanese,” one Asian diplomat told the paper, recalling the 1989 incident. But the recent U.S.-China rift over a U.S. Navy EP-3 and its crew “is helping Japan to remember the true nature of the Chinese government.”

The new Japanese-built F-2 fighter, based on the U.S. F-16, will comprise much of Japan’s air defense and security in the coming years.

And, as China continues to block U.S. efforts to reclaim the American plane, Japanese officials are reminded that however far China may have progressed in economic reforms, a totalitarian communist regime still rules the nation, the paper said.

U.S. officials noted a power struggle in China in the immediate wake of the EP-3 incident. One faction — the moderate faction — within the Chinese government advocated a go-slow approach with the U.S. and a more rapid repatriation of the Navy plane and its crew.

The other faction — led by the People’s Liberation Army command — has advocated a more hard-line approach with Washington, however. And, judging by the delay in returning the 24-member U.S. crew — which took 11 days — and the plane — which China still holds, it appears the hard-line PLA faction has the advantage, the Japanese paper said, quoting U.S. and Asian analysts.

The U.S. and Japan, to China’s displeasure, recently agreed to strengthen security cooperation and efforts, which analysts have said was aimed largely at containing China’s growing military power.

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