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An East China Sea Update

by Sheila A. Smith
February 4, 2014

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear (L), Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of their talks at the Abe's official residence in Tokyo February 3, 2014 Admiral Samuel J. Locklear (L), Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of their talks at the Abe's official residence in Tokyo February 3, 2014. (Kimimasa Mayama/Courtesy Reuters)

Since China announced its new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on November 23, there has been much debate over what this means for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In the East China Sea, the acute political tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands have not abated nor has Beijing responded to Japan’s call for developing maritime risk reduction mechanisms. Meanwhile, a recent Nikkei poll revealed that 84 percent of its respondents were “anxious” about relations with Washington.

Across the East China Sea, interactions between Chinese and Japanese militaries are increasing and the continuing rhetorical battle for international support between Tokyo and Beijing has made serious diplomacy all the more unlikely. History has again reared its ugly head, but this should not divert attention from the dangerous dynamics of the East China Sea.

First, and perhaps most obvious, the ADIZ announcement by Beijing has not (yet) introduced more caution by either party. Rather it has instigated greater interaction between Chinese and Japanese air forces in their overlapping ADIZs. The Japanese Ministry of Defense announced on January 21 that Air Self Defense Force (ASDF) jets had scrambled 138 times between October and December 2013, the highest ever and considerably more than the 80 scrambles of the previous quarter (July through September).

Second, the ADIZ has made China the number one air defense concern for Japan. For most of the postwar period, it was the air threat from the former Soviet Union that was the focal point of Japan’s defenses. While the Soviets flew around Japan or even entered Japanese airspace in the south near U.S. military bases in Okinawa, the predominant focus of Japan’s air defenses was the northern boundary with today’s Russia. Now China has surpassed Russia in drawing Japanese scrambles. In the last three months of 2013, the ASDF flew 295 scrambles against the Chinese compared with only 158 against Russian jets.

Third, Japan’s air defenses must be equally attentive to both the northern and southern borders. China’s growing interest in the East China Sea airspace has not meant that Russia is less interested in its airspace boundary with Japan. Russia and China are both drawing a Japanese response in its ADIZ. Of the 563 Japanese scrambles reported by the Defense Ministry, 246 were against Russian aircraft and 287 were against Chinese. Only 9 were reported against North Korea.

It is still too early to dub this new situation in the East China Sea as a Japan-China “cold war.” Yet some contrast between Japan’s interactions to the north with the Soviets and today with China is helpful. At the height of Japan-Soviet Cold War military contact in the 1980s, when Japan’s SDF played a critical role helping the United States contain the Soviet Union’s Far Eastern fleet in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japanese and Soviet air forces were constantly interacting in the airspace off of Hokkaido. If judged simply on the basis of scrambles, Japanese and Soviet air forces had far more contact, with the MOD recording over 900 scrambles in some years. China and Japan have yet to reach that level of intensity, but the number of interactions has jumped significantly. Japanese pilots, despite their vast experience with the Russian air force in the north are operating in a much more highly scrutinized environment today than during the Cold War

But it is not simply scrambles that matter. Two other practices of the Cold War era are perhaps equally telling about today’s dangers in the East China Sea. First, Japan and the former Soviet Union (and today Russia) developed a regular mechanism for monitoring their militaries’ interactions, and took steps to minimize the likelihood of mistakes and accidents by ensuring the Moscow and Tokyo knew exactly what their pilots were doing in the skies. Beijing and Tokyo do not have the benefit of that conversation, and in fact, Beijing claims it is simply not interested in beginning one. Like the Soviets of old, China is sending more and more lethal aircraft to patrol the East China Sea. Today, a Japanese ASDF or Maritime Self-Defense Force pilot is more likely to interact with Chinese jet fighters than other types of aircraft. Despite the ominous announcement that China would police its ADIZ scrupulously, there is still little information on the rules of engagement for Chinese fighter jets when confronting intruders.

We still know little about the Chinese assessment of these past few months. Unlike Japan, the Chinese government does not publish statistics about the behavior of its military. Perhaps this will change. This past weekend, China’s Liberation Army Daily reported that two Chinese fighter jets were scrambled over the East China Sea, ostensibly to track and drive away a foreign military aircraft that approached an airport near China’s coast. There was no information provided as to the nationality of the aircraft, what airport it approached or when and where it entered China’s ADIZ. On February 2, however, Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily quoted Vice Secretary General of the Chinese Academy of Military Science Luo Yuan as identifying the aircraft as Japanese, although he did not identify the type of aircraft.

For U.S. policymakers, the implications of this growing interaction between Japanese and Chinese militaries extend far beyond what is happening on the water or in the air above the East China Sea. U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear visited Tokyo to call for even greater alliance coordination in maritime Asia, and to reassure Japan’s strategic planners that the U.S. military viewed the activities in the East China Sea as an alliance challenge—not just Japan’s challenge.

Nonetheless, Japanese are worried. Policymakers worry about the fallout from Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, and about the growing impact of regional tensions on Washington’s view of the alliance. The Japanese public is worried too. Last week, the Nikkei Shimbun conducted a small poll asking two questions. The first was if Japanese felt greater anxiety about the U.S.-Japan alliance. The second was whether Japan did the right thing by purchasing the Senkaku Islands from their owner. The answer to the first question was a resounding yes—with 50 percent of respondents saying they were “slightly” more anxious while 34 percent said they were “very” anxious. Together 84 percent registered concern about the U.S.-Japan alliance.

There is evidence of some self-reflection, of course. Few in Japan want the increased tensions with their neighbors. Yet they are fairly unified on the need to protect Japanese territory. On whether Japan made the right choice to purchase the islands the Nikkei poll revealed differences over the handling of the purchase, but not the purchase itself—39 percent said the decision was the right one, 30 percent agreed but thought it was badly handled, and 17 percent said that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government should have been allowed to purchase the islands. Only 14 percent of Japanese said it was the wrong decision.

There is little support in Japan for compromise on the islands themselves, and there is growing concern about whether the U.S.-Japan alliance is ready to handle the increasingly difficult situation in the East China Sea.

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