The risk of Japan becoming involved in an accidental conflict amid rising tensions between the United States and China has recently been put in the spotlight, especially as Tokyo and Washington are deepening their military cooperation.
In their April 16 summit, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden shared concerns over China's attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China seas. The Defense Ministry is working to deepen its cooperation with U.S. forces stationed in Japan through surveillance activities and joint exercises.
The moves, however, carry a risk of an accidental confrontation among Japanese, U.S. and Chinese ships and planes when they have close contacts in tense airspace and waters.
Japan and the U.S. have frequently held practical joint exercises since a "two-plus-two" meeting of their foreign and defense ministers in March.
According to ministry officials, a drill in late March that involved the Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyer Kongo and the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge was designed to improve the deterrence power of the Japan-U.S. alliance and interoperability.
The Blue Ridge can serve as the 7th Fleet command center. Military information in the western Pacific is concentrated on the vessel.
The Kongo, meanwhile, has advanced air defense capabilities that could be used to protect the Blue Ridge in a contingency situation in the Taiwan Strait or around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China, under Japan's national security laws implemented in 2016.
The ministry is also boosting efforts to publicize joint exercises with the United States to highlight progress in the cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military.
But an increase in joint activities by the two could raise the risk of Japan becoming involved in an unintended confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Some Japanese government officials grew concerned when the U.S. Navy released a picture online early this month of the 7th Fleet's Aegis destroyer USS Mustin monitoring the Chinese military's Liaoning aircraft carrier.
"It may provoke the target (China)," an official said of the picture, in which the captain of the Mustin was seen sitting back casually with his feet up as he watched the Liaoning.
"As can be inferred from the picture, there were only 2,000 meters between the U.S. vessel and the Liaoning," the official said.
"The picture may cause unnecessary friction, as it may be taken to indicate that the United States was looking down on the Chinese aircraft carrier," the official added.
An MSDF destroyer and patrol aircraft were also tracking and monitoring the Chinese ship.
Japanese and Chinese defense authorities are still working to set up a hotline under a bilateral air and maritime communication mechanism.
In order to prevent unintended clashes, SDF ships and aircraft on the scene need to communicate directly with their Chinese counterparts.
In 2013, a Chinese warship locked a weapons-targeting radar on an MSDF destroyer in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, a Chinese warship sailed dangerously close to a U.S. Aegis destroyer in 2018.
MSDF Chief of Staff Adm. Hiroshi Yamamura told a recent news conference that MSDF vessels communicate with warships of other countries by radio when passing each other.
"As communication is ensured, there's no problem at the moment," he added.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.