When you’ve got an itch, you scratch it. That urge is often caused by an irritation, which is how China and Russia perceive recent U.S. military moves in their neighborhoods. That’s what accounts for a flurry of dangerous fly-bys of U.S. warplanes and ships by Beijing’s and Moscow’s aircraft. But figuring out the root motive—and even who’s in the right—is a little more complicated.

The question looms large this week as President Obama visits Japan and Vietnam, two nations concerned about neighboring China’s territorial expansion into the East and South China Seas. Last week, a pair of Chinese J-11 fighter jets flew within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane as it cruised over the South China Sea, where China has been enlarging reefs and building airstrips on them.

“American aircraft have constantly entered China’s coastal waters conducting reconnaissance, which has posed a serious threat to China’s maritime and air safety,” Hong Lei, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, told reporters Thursday.

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Image courtesy of US Navy