Gabe Collins

Gabe Collins


Over the last year or so, China and its neighbors have made claims and counter claims over various islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea. Japan and China have also sported various claims over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions recently flared up when a Chinese plane from the State Oceanic Administration flew over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. In your view, how do you see such island disputes being resolved — or not — over the next five years? Do you feel there is a path that allows such disputes to be resolved peacefully? Is joint development of these islands and their surrounding waters with less of a focus on ownership or sovereignty a possible answer?

At this point, I don’t think there is a high probability that the island disputes will be resolved in the next five years. The continued strength of nationalism in China and the changing political tide in Japan, driven in part by China’s increasingly assertive regional actions and perhaps to a greater part by North Korea’s belligerence and missile development programs, are likely to preclude each leadership’s ability to make the political compromises necessary to resolve the disputes.

Ideally there is a path to peaceful resolution. For the time being, one optimal outcome would be a diplomatic “agreement to disagree” and a second agreement of some type, even if informal, to not operate military platforms in the area and treat the dispute as a law enforcement matter. However, for such measures to work, China would also need to refrain from using fishermen as proxies to assert its claims.

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Joint development of resources will probably raise more questions than it resolves. For instance, what government gets the royalty/license bonus payments from a mineral lease agreement in an area? Also, would the Japanese public and political class view oil and gas investments from China’s CNOOC as simply proxy actions by a Chinese state owned company serving the national interest? At the end of the day, joint development zones work best when disputes are primarily about economic issues — such as those with joint offshore oil development in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea or with the Neutral Zone on the Saudi-Kuwait border. I hate to be pessimistic but in my assessment the East and South China Sea disputes are too wrapped up in political and nationalistic baggage to be solvable with joint development zones in the next 5-6 years.

While Chinese aerospace technology and air power have received a tremendous amount of coverage, something that is often overlooked in these analyses is the necessity of training  air crews and pilots to fly China’s 4th and soon-to-be 5th generation fighters. How would you rate the strength and prowess of the airmen who would fly China’s latest military aircraft? Does their training measure up to Western standards?

It is tough to get a real measure of Chinese pilot quality because Chinese airmen do not participate in exercises with U.S. forces the way that pilots from India and other countries take part in Red Flag training, Cobra Gold, and other joint training. Also, we lack meaningful independent benchmarks because Chinese pilots have not seen nearly the amount of combat that U.S. pilots have (China’s last military conflict was the Johnson Reef skirmish with Vietnam in 1988).

While I don’t have a good measuring stick for how good Chinese pilots are, one thing we do know is that training is expensive and is likely to occupy a larger portion of the Chinese military budget in the coming years as new platforms are integrated into the force. Fuel is a major component of the cost of air operations and watching PLA jet fuel procurement is one barometer that can help outside analysts assess the true level of the PLA’s day-to-day air operations and training tempo.

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