Judging from the frequency, size, and coincidence of military exercises that are being held this past week alone in the East China Sea, it is easy to conclude that tensions in the region — especially over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands — are continuing to rise, something that Japan’s defense white paper, released earlier this week, seems to confirm.
What is especially troubling, despite efforts by the governments involved to downplay the drills by repeatedly stating that they are not aimed at any third party, the fact of the matter is that live-fire military drills are increasingly becoming instruments of policy, and are being timed in a way that can only be described as escalatory.
All the elements of a tit-for-tat series of exercises by the principal countries are present week. As The Diplomat reported last week, China and Russia are currently holding their largest bilateral naval drills in the Bay of Peter the Great, just 600 km off of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Acutely aware of the significance of any exercise the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) holds in its backyard, especially when Russia is involved, Tokyo has monitored developments with noticeable apprehension.
In fact, no sooner had the Sino-Russian exercises begun on July 8 than Japan and the U.S. had reportedly embarked on their own joint exercises in the airspace between Hokkaido and Misawa. According to reports, a total of 16 combat aircraft — eight F-16s from the U.S. Air Force’s 35th Fighter Wing and eight F-15Js from the 2nd Air Wing of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) — were involved and tasked with monitoring the Joint Sea 2013/Naval Interaction drills.
Official Chinese media reacted to the joint U.S.-Japanese drills by pointing out that the timing was no coincidence. The PLA Daily quoted Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo as saying that Washington and Tokyo had timed the non-routine exercise, whose timeframe he said had not been announced prior to July 8, as a direct response to the drills with Russia.
“It is evident that the Japan and the United States improvised this drill in response to the China-Russian maritime joint military exercise,” the Daily said of the U.S.-Japanese drill, which does not involve live ammunition. “It carried rather a political significance than a military one.”
According to a press release on the Misawa Air Base web site, the weeklong Aviation Training Relocation, which is being held at Chitose Air Base, is to gain proficiency in air-to-air combat sets while simultaneously strengthening the USAF and JASDF’s relationship through training. The U.S. F-16s traveled to Chitose on July 8 and joined the JASDF 201st Fighter Squadron for the exercise. Approximately 100 U.S. pilots traveled to Chitose air base for the simulated combat training.
Meanwhile, in China the Ningbo Maritime Bureau issued a warning on July 9 closing off an area in coastal waters near Zhejiang Province ahead of planned live-fire exercises on July 10. A similar exercise was held the previous year at the same location, and appears to be held routinely each year. Very little information has been released regarding the size and duration of this year’s drills.
Photos have also appeared on state-owned news sites indicating that, in “recent days,” a PLAN live-fire exercise had been held near Shantou in China’s southern Guangdong Province, in “recent days.” Based on the available imagery, frigates and Type-022 Houbei fast-attack guided missile craft from the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet were involved (vessels from the South Sea Fleet have joined others from the North Sea Fleet for the ongoing exercises with the Russian navy).
While there isn’t anything intrinsically alarming to military exercises, the observable trend in Northeast Asia towards holding larger drills with greater frequency and more modern surface ships—along with the growing overlap with which drills are held by different nations or alliances—is a worrying development. Beyond the political signals that are sent, they also underscore accelerating efforts by competitors to bolster war preparedness.
These efforts cannot be treated in isolation from their context, and that context, sadly, is one in which diplomacy appears to be stalling.