The past few months have put the Japan Coast Guard and Air Self-Defense Force to the test, as they defend the nation’s territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, a flash point for potential military clashes with China.
China continues to send ships around the Japan-controlled islets, which are also claimed by Taiwan. While both the coast guard and Self-Defense Forces plan to significantly beef up their presence around the uninhabited islets, this also increases the chances of unintended conflict, experts say.
“The situation has started to be like playing chicken. The Chinese are waiting for the Japanese side to give up,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a nonprofit think tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.
Masayuki Masuda, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, said Japan’s patrol and defense capabilities are strong enough to repel China’s threat for now.
However, over the long term, it will become increasingly difficult to keep Chinese ships away from the islets, considering Beijing’s soaring defense budget, he said.
Five Chinese government organizations — dubbed the “Five Dragons” — operate patrol ships that can be sent to the Senkakus, including the China Coast Guard, the Land and Resources Ministry and the fisheries bureau under the Agriculture Ministry.
The Five Dragons — not counting the Chinese navy — own about 47 1,000-ton ships, while the Japan Coast Guard has 51 of comparable size. China is expected to add another 20 such vessels or more by the end of 2015, according to Masuda.
“In two or three years’ time, the number of Chinese government ships (of that size) will exceed 70. If China starts sending more ships to (the Senkakus), we can easily imagine a situation where the coast guard won’t be able to handle them,” Masuda told The Japan Times.
Chinese ships have intruded into Japan’s territorial waters many times since September, when Tokyo effectively nationalized the five-islet chain north of Taiwan by purchasing three from their Saitama titleholder.
The same is true for the skies. Okinawa-based ASDF fighter jets scrambled a record 160 times in the April-December period around the Senkakus, known as Diaoyu in China, as aircraft, mainly of the Chinese government, made repeated intrusions into Japan’s air defense identification zone.
More alarmingly, on Dec. 13 a Chinese government aircraft approached within 20 km of the Senkaku airspace, the closest incursion ever, according to the Defense Ministry, which, along with its predecessor have been keeping records on such incidents since 1958.
China upped the ante last month when one of its frigates locked its weapons-guiding radar onto a Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter flying over the East China Sea. Another Chinese frigate later did likewise with an MSDF destroyer on the high seas near the Senkakus.
Amid the tension, the coast guard and ASDF have mobilized ships and aircraft from distant bases to temporarily bolster patrols and defenses around the islets.
There are plans to make these temporary measures more permanent.
The coast guard is poised to form a special unit to patrol the Senkakus.
This unit will have 12 new 1,000-ton patrol boats and one helicopter by the end of fiscal 2015, procured through a ¥19.8 billion supplementary budget approved last October. The unit’s 600 members will be tasked solely with patrolling the Senkakus.
The coast guard also plans to upgrade some of its 51 ships — including increasing their maximum speed — to better cope with intruders.
“This is one of the biggest supplementary budgets, and we really need to prepare for the situation near the Senkakus,” one coast guard official said.
Currently, the coast guard’s 11th Regional Headquarters, which covers the Senkakus, only has seven 1,000-ton patrol boats, keeping watch on several Chinese vessels in constant proximity.
In response, to bolster security around Okinawa and the Senkakus, the government has, for the first time in 11 years, increased defense spending for the next fiscal year starting April 1 to ¥4.754 trillion, up ¥40 billion from the previous year.
The government has earmarked ¥13.5 billion to operate ASDF E-767 and E-2C airborne warning and control system aircraft. Six F-15 interceptors will also be upgraded.
With their advanced radar systems, the E-767 and E-2C AWACS planes greatly enhance the capability of the SDF units, providing a significant advantage over the Chinese navy and air force, which do not have similar systems.
Currently, the ASDF operates E-2C propeller-driven planes out of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, and E-767 jets out of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
The Defense Ministry is meanwhile mulling the possible stationing of ASDF fighter wings in Okinawa’s Sakishima Islands, which include Miyako Island.
Currently, F-15s scramble from the Naha base on Okinawa Island, 420 km from the Senkakus. A Sakishima deployment would halve the distance.
However, given the strong antimilitary sentiment among Okinawa residents, it’s uncertain if the ASDF can find any place to base its interceptors there.
The F-15s in Naha are on 24-hour alert, ready to take off within minutes if radar detects unknown aircraft approaching Japanese airspace.
Faced with an unknown intruder, the first step is a verbal warning and maneuvering to get an intruder to change course. If the plane enters Japan’s territorial airspace regardless of the warnings, ASDF fighters are theoretically allowed to fire warning shots.
However, warning shots have only been fired one time, in 1987 when a Soviet plane intruded. In fact, 36 unauthorized foreign aircraft have entered Japan’s territorial airspace since 1967.
Giving the green light to the ASDF to take such tough action against Chinese aircraft would involve great risk.
If China sends a fleet of privately owned trawlers to the Senkakus, it would also prove extremely difficult to stop anyone from landing on the islets, as some Chinese activists from Hong Kong did last August.
Masuda of the NIDS stressed the importance of setting up a military hotline with China to avoid armed conflict.
“(Japan needs to consider) ways to secure continued communication between personnel of both countries. If we can build up such interaction, then a sense of security between the two nations” may slowly grow, Masuda said.
At the same time, it’s crucial for Japan to bolster the Japan-U.S. alliance and enhance interoperability to keep China in check, he said.