In recent weeks, the standoff over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has taken to the air.
On Sept. 9, manned Chinese bombers flew near Okinawa, but did not cross into Japanese airspace. The next day, a UAV, believed to be a Chinese BZK-005, was spotted near the Senkaku/Diaoyus, prompting Tokyo to deploy fighters to shadow the aircraft. A few weeks later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe granted approval to the Japanese Ministry of Defense to shoot down any drones that ignore warnings to leave Japanese airspace. Then, on October 27, Chinese bombers and surveillance aircraft passed through the Miyako Strait en route to the Pacific, which Japan’s Minister of Defense called “an example of China’s aggressive expansion of its active range that includes the ocean.” And in the most recent development, a former PLA commander announced that Japan shooting down a drone would be considered an act of war.
Tensions have, of course, been running high between Beijing and Tokyo since the latter purchased three of the five islands in late summer 2012, and Beijing responding by increasing its maritime patrols of the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyus. These recent exchanges in the skies should not, however, be taken as business as usual: the fact that the conflict is now airborne raises the potential for escalation beyond its already-uncomfortably-high levels.
There are at least two reasons why these aerial activities, and drones in particular, may present new challenges in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute.
First, these recent engagements come at a time of defensive flux in Japan. Since the mid-1950s, the express purpose of Japan’s Self Defense Forces has been to defend the country against direct or indirect invasion. For an operation to qualify as self-defense, it must satisfy three criteria. First, it must present an immediate danger of invasion to Japan. Secondly, no other alternative measure to the use of force can exist. Thirdly, the use of force must be the minimal amount necessary for defense.
More recent laws have given Tokyo the ability to mobilize or respond to an imminent attack, but the SDF is still prevented from attacking a source of danger until the use of armed force against it is under way. Given these guidelines, it would be tempting to infer that Abe’s counter-drone plan is primarily a rhetorical one: how could an unarmed surveillance drone meet the SDF’s rigorous criteria to allow shots to be fired?
This would be a reasonable question, if not for the fact that Tokyo is currently in the midst of a major review that may result in the revision of the traditional interpretation of Article 9, the constitution’s “peace clause.” The Abe administration may consider a number of defense policy changes, including a new stance on the longstanding prohibition on collective self-defense (military assistance to an ally).
There are also signs that revisions could include more permissive guidelines on the use of force. Earlier this year, Japan’s Ministry of Defense was reportedly considering allowing the Air Self Defense Forces to fire warning shots at Chinese aircraft in Japanese airspace. More recently, a leading defense official has said that new guidelines may allow the SDF to launch missile strikes preemptively in the case of an imminent attack by North Korea. These are two very different contingencies, but both suggest a willingness to at least consider preemption, which was anathema to the SDF under older guidelines.
Second, even if the SDF’s rules of engagement are not revised substantially and Abe’s new shoot-down plan remains shelved, drone overflight of the Senkakus may still be escalatory as it gives each claimant fewer options in a crisis. On China’s side, the use of drones is a more militarized challenge than previous challenges to Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyus.
Beijing’s patrols around the islands have generally relied on China Marine Surveillance (as opposed to PLA Navy) vessels. While still governmental, the CMS is a maritime law enforcement agency, not a military service. Drones are another story. Although the UAV detected in September was unarmed, making it a less bellicose intrusion on Senkaku airspace than, say, a bomber, it is still a military vehicle, whose capabilities can be used for non-peaceful ends. Indeed, it is worth noting that the Chinese bombers did not cross into Japanese airspace on Sept. 9 or Oct. 27, while the UAV did on Sept. 10. Beijing may feel it has more freedom to toe the line with an unarmed surveillance vehicle than it would with a more provocative military jet. But drones in Senkaku airspace are still a step beyond CMS vessels in surrounding waters.
Beijing’s use of drones may also make it more difficult for Tokyo to resist responding to challenges to its administrative control of the Senkakus. Practically speaking, Chinese incursions on airspace and territorial waters concern the same geography: airspace extends only as far as a country’s territorial waters (12 nm), so no more or less of the Senkakus are at stake from an aerial as opposed to a nautical incursion. Unlike CMS patrols, however, if a Chinese drone lingers in Japanese-administered airspace, it is difficult for Tokyo to interpret this as something other than a military challenge to its administration.
And having declared the existence of a plan to shoot down drones, it will be more difficult for Abe to take no action if this occurs. Even if his response does not involve firing shots, the Prime Minister is now on record as opposing Beijing’s efforts to revise the status quo from above. Drones may seem like a “Goldilocks Option” to Beijing—more assertive than maritime patrols, less aggressive than fighter jets—but they can still trigger a reaction from Tokyo due to the past weeks’ events.
Beijing clearly sees an ongoing interest in testing Tokyo’s administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Tokyo an imperative to push back on these challenges. With the future of Japanese defense strategy uncertain, unarmed surveillance drones may still carry significant escalatory potential. All probes of commitment are not created equal, and they become especially worrisome if disputants have fewer options for backing down from a crisis. Rather than engage in any more brinksmanship in the skies, both sides would do well to keep this conflict grounded.