Chinese military aircraft conducted a drill in international waters of the East China Sea in late May that simulated the targeting of Self-Defense Force destroyers, according to Japanese government sources Sunday, in what the government considered “an extremely dangerous military action.”
Officials said the drill, which had not previously been revealed, could have led to unexpected circumstances. But the government did not protest to the Chinese government and has not made the incident public in order to keep Japan’s intelligence-gathering and analysis capabilities secret.
According to the sources, multiple Chinese JH-7 fighter-bombers approached two Maritime Self-Defense Force escort vessels sailing near a contentious gas field on the Chinese side of the so-called median line between the exclusive economic zones of Japan and China, moving close enough to put the vessels within striking distance of anti-ship missiles.
The Chinese aircraft did not engage in a radar lock-on of the vessels, making it impossible for the MSDF to discern the intentions of the approaching aircraft.
Separately, multiple radio-intercepting divisions of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces all intercepted transmissions from the Chinese aircraft saying that they were engaging in “attack drills targeting MSDF vessels.” After analyzing the intercepts, the flight paths of the Chinese jets and other radio information emitted from the aircraft, the government concluded that the exercise was one aimed at targeting the vessels.
According to a 2018 report by the Rand Corp. think tank, China has expanded its air and naval operations in the East China Sea in recent years, as it seeks to normalize its military presence there — with a Defense Ministry spokesperson even saying that “the parties concerned” should “(get) used to such drills.”
Still, despite increasing unease in Tokyo over Beijing’s growing military reach, Sino-Japanese ties have improved in recent months. This culminated in a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June, where the two leaders confirmed that they will work together to realize a visit by Xi to Japan as a state guest “when cherry blossoms bloom.”
In an effort to ensure the success of Xi’s planned visit, China has been striving for better relations with Japan. Last week, fisheries authorities in Fujian province ordered Chinese fishermen to stay away from the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, a move seen as Beijing trying to remove an irritant in its ties with Tokyo.
The Japanese-controlled Senkakus are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.
The order, released a day ahead of Friday’s start of the fishing season in the East China Sea, was issued online and called on fishermen to “not go near the sensitive waters,” sources said.
Despite recent improvements in Sino-Japanese relations, the territorial row over the islands is still considered a fragile part of bilateral ties. Through the directive, China hopes to prevent fishing boats from going near the uninhabited islets to avoid a strong backlash in Japan, experts say.
Nevertheless, Japan in February lodged a fresh protest with China over its continued deployment of a drilling ship at a gas field in the East China Sea. The protest, made through diplomatic channels, came after Tokyo confirmed that the drilling ship in January moved to a location a few kilometers northeast of where it was in mid-November, in an apparent search for resources.
Beijing has reportedly developed 16 structures on the Chinese side of a Tokyo-proposed median line separating the two countries’ economic zones in the East China Sea.
Japan and China agreed on joint gas development in the area in 2008, but negotiations were suspended in 2010. Japan fears China’s unilateral development in the area may lead to the siphoning off of resources from the Japanese side.