Two Chinese jet fighters came within tens of meters of two Japanese Self-Defense Forces planes on two separate occasions within about an hour over the East China Sea on May 24. This highly dangerous move on the part of China could cause an accident or even a military clash. It is imperative that China halt such provocative actions and act responsibly. Japan, for its part, needs to remain calm in such situations and take utmost care not to rise to the provocation. To reduce the chances of an unanticipated military clash, Tokyo and Beijing should develop a system to allow frequent and smooth communication.
According to the Defense Ministry, around 11 a.m. on May 24, two Chinese SU-27 fighters approached a Mariime Self-Defense Force OP-3C surveillance plane from behind and one fighter came as close as 50 meters. About an hour later, two SU-27 fighters similarly approached an Air Self-Defense Force YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft and one came within 30 meters. In both cases, the Chinese fighters were armed with missiles.
The incidents occurred in an area where Japan’s air defense identification zone overlaps with an ADIZ that China declared last November. The two SDF aircraft were monitoring a joint naval drill being conducted by China and Russia near Japanese territorial waters, according to a government source quoted in a media report.
China insists that its jet fighters scrambled against the SDF planes because they tried to interfere with the China-Russia joint military exercise. But China’s explanation rings false. Although Beijing says that the Chinese jets issued warnings to the SDF planes beforehand, the Defense Ministry says that no warnings were issued and that the SDF aircraft, which were engaged in routine surveillance activities, never interfered with the exercise. Most importantly, the SDF planes were not moving toward Chinese territory. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was right to accuse China of going “over the top.”
When Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua to lodge a protest, they agreed that both governments need to take a joint measure to prevent the development of an unanticipated military situation. Japan and China earlier agreed to install a hotline between government leaders and set up a communication mechanism between Japanese and Chinese naval vessels and military aircraft. But despite long negotiations, these measures have not been implemented. Both Japanese and Chinese government officials should make strenuous efforts to establish them. Both countries should also deepen exchanges between military officials.
In this kind of situation, it is critical for government leaders in both countries to act prudently. In a speech he gave Sunday, Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, used the May 24 incidents and the recent spat between China and Vietnam over China’s oil drilling near the Paracel Islands as cases that justify the lifting of Japan’s ban on collective self-defense — conveniently ignoring the fact that Japan can adequately defend its territory under the current, long-standing interpretation of the Constitution’s Article 9. Such statements, which are aimed at promoting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda, will only add to the tension between Tokyo and Beijing.
The leaders of both countries should seek to resolve problems through diplomatic dialogue instead of talking about military responses to each other’s moves.