China Tests Japan's Resolve Over East China Sea
A Mitsubishi F-2A of the Japan Air Defense Forces.

China Tests Japan's Resolve Over East China Sea

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The Japan Air Self Defense Force scrambled its jets 117 times against Chinese planes in the third quarter of 2015, up from 103 times in the same period last year, the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced this week.  That’s a 13.5 percent increase from the July-September period of 2014. Japan also logged a record high for scrambles against Chinese planes for the first half of the year, but the numbers are still far below the record high of 164 scrambles, set during the last quarter of 2014 (notably, before the current thaw in China-Japan ties set in).

Most of the Chinese aircraft in questions were fighter jets flying over the East China Sea, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense. China and Japan both claim sovereignty over a group of islands in the East China Sea, known in Japan as the Senkakus and in China as the Diaoyus. China routinely sends Coast Guard vessels as well as aircraft to patrol the region as a means of asserting its claim; Japan just as routinely meets these incursions with its own assets.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry defended the patrols, saying that “the activities conducted by Chinese planes in relevant waters and airspace are justified and lawful.”

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Unsurprisingly, that assessment isn’t shared in Japan. Akio Takahara, a professor at the Graduate School of Law and Politics at the University of Tokyo and an expert on China-Japan relations, told The Diplomat that the situation in the East China Sea is “abnormal.” China routinely sends government vessels to enter the territorial waters around the Senkakus, which is against international norms, he says: “As a responsible, big nation, they should not be behaving like this. This is something that a rogue state would do.”

Koji Kano, director of the Defense Policy Bureau at the Japanese Ministry of Defense, told The Diplomat the that actual number of the aerial encounters between Chinese and Japanese aircraft is not as significant as the overall trend. And the trend can be either good or bad, depending on which data you want to interpret: “If you look at the numbers of Chinese government vessels violating our territorial waters, maybe you might get just a little bit concerned. But if you look at the political atmosphere between the two countries… I find something positive in the trend.”

Kano is quick to stress that “China is not our enemy,” but says both sides must think about how to manage risks in the East China Sea. The situation in the waters surrounding Senkakus is very tense, and while Kano says it has been well managed so far, there is always the risk of unintended accidents and unpredictable situations. Especially given political ties between China and Japan are still frayed, a “mechanism which might be able to contain those potential risks is very, very important.”

For years, Japan has championed a maritime and air communication mechanism that would set up a hotline between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities, as well as providing for direct communications between naval vessels and aircraft. The Defense of Japan White Paper 2015 said that “the maritime communication mechanism is becoming increasingly necessary to avoid and prevent unforeseen consequences.”

Negotiations stalled on the mechanism in 2012, as political tensions made progress impossible. However, after Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their breakthrough meeting in November 2014, China and Japan agreed to resume talks on maritime and air communication mechanism. They restarted talks in early 2015 but despite initial optimism haven’t been able to seal the deal. Working-level talks on maritime issues are planned for November in Beijing; according to Japan Times, Japanese officials will urge the completion of the mechanism as soon as possible.

There’s guarded optimism in Japan, at least. Takahara said that the U.S.-China agreement governing air-to-air encounters was a “good sign” and “should give a push to Japan-China relations.” He expressed hope that the two sides might have something to announce at the next Abe-Xi meeting.

Kano, meanwhile, said the two sides have “made some very positive steps,” but offered no timeline: “I think the general trend is somewhat positive, but at the same time, nobody can say we’ll be able to reach an agreement.”

In the meantime, Chinese and Japanese planes will continue to shadow each other over the East China Sea hundreds of times throughout the year.

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