“An Act of War”: Drones Are Testing China-Japan Relations

The Chinese drone that flew over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands.
The Chinese drone that flew over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Photo credit: Ministry of Defense of Japan

By Dan Gettinger, @GettDan

On September 9th, the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force scrambled an F-15 fighter jet in response to an aircraft that had intruded into Japanese airspace . The offending vehicle: a Chinese military drone. The surveillance drone was spotted flying over the Senkaku Islands-known in China as the Diaoyu Islands-in the southern region of the East China Sea. The Japanese government was furious; China was unapologetic.  “China enjoys freedom of overflight in relevant waters… The Chinese military will organize similar routine activities in the future,” read a brief statement from the Ministry’s Information Bureau. Japan, China and Taiwan, drawn by the presence of undersea oil and gas resources, all claim the Senkaku Islands as their own. In the escalating dispute, drones are lowering the boiling point.

Japan was shaken by the Chinese drone. “It was unexpected… I fear we are in the position of being one step behind,” an unnamed official from the Ministry of Defense told the Asahi Shimbun. After the overflight, the Ministry sprung into action. On October 20, Japan released new rules of engagement for drones that included the proviso that it would shoot down any unauthorized unmanned aircraft that entered Japanese airspace and ignored warnings to leave. These guidelines are more aggressive than those for manned aircraft, which stipulate that an intruder must pose a threat to Japanese nationals before qualifying as a target. In response to the new rules, Geng Yansheng, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defense, announced that if Japan shoots down a Chinese drone over the Senkaku Islands, it will be “an act of war” that would prompt severe retaliation. For China, shooting down a drone seems as egregious as downing a manned jet while Japan appears more willing to take action against intrusive drones than against manned aircraft. In this case, the use of unmanned vehicles altered traditional rules of engagement, adding greater uncertainty and suspicion to what is already a powder keg of nationalistic sentiment.

Sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands has been a complicated subject ever since Japan’s Meiji government seized the territories after defeating China in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. In 1900, Koga Tatsuhiro, a Japanese entrepreneur, started a fishing business on one of the islands. After the venture failed in 1940, the islands became deserted and the property was sold to the Kurihara family in 1970. In the Treaty of San Francisco after the Second World War, the United States took control of the Senkaku Islands as part of the Ryukyu Island chain that stretches from Okinawa to the Senkakus. A United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East survey in 1968 revealed potentially enormous deposits of undersea oil and gas around the islands. When the United States transferred Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands back to Japan in 1972, the Senkaku Islands were included despite China making a claim on the territory in 1971. The issue was dormant until 2006, when the Japanese Coast Guard intercepted a group of Chinese and Taiwanese protesters who were attempting to land on the islands. In September 2012, the Japanese government agreed to buy the Senkaku islands from the Kurihara family, effectively nationalizing the territories and setting off protests in China. Controversial encounters between the Chinese and Japanese private and state actors have marred diplomatic relations and added an ominous warlike tone to the geopolitical rhetoric in the region.

The Senkaku Islands are part of a larger swath of ocean territories claimed by China. The dispute with Japan in the East China Sea mirrors a similarly heated conflict between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and others over a host of small islands in the South China Sea. Uncompromising Chinese tactics in the South China Sea have led to a sympathetic deepening of ties between Japan and the Philippines and Vietnam. In June, the United States held training exercises with their Filipino counterparts on how to use unmanned surveillance aircraft. China is seen as pursuing an aggressive push for control of vital shipping lanes and undersea resources. Rising nationalism in Japan – and across the region generally – has fueled a popular resistance to what is perceived to be Chinese militarism.

While China’s expansive strategy may be primarily commercially motivated, its conflicts with neighbors in the South and East China Seas are becoming more and more hawkish. Walter Russell Mead at Via Meadia blog has argued that the South China Sea is a flashpoint in the new “Great Game” in Asia among developing nations. At the Naval Diplomat blog, James R. Holmes suggests that China could apply a Fabian strategy, so named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius who used delaying tactics and attrition to wear down Hannibal’s Carthaginian army. In London’s Financial Times, Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, worried that the island disputes might force China and the U.S. into “the Thucydides trap,” referring to the theory that the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta were led into war by Athens’ precipitous rise to military and economic power.

None of these scenarios, however valid they might be in other respects, consider the role that drones might play in escalating the tensions. Drones already do not have the best track record when it comes to safeguarding national sovereignty. Their part in the Senkaku Islands dispute, while so far relatively minor in comparison to role of civilian protesters and naval forces, adds a new dimension to this old conflict. There are two major drone-related developments that could have an impact on the delicate situation in the East China Sea: Chinese investment in drones and Japan’s more aggressive military posture.

China has been investing heavily in unmanned technology, producing and exporting their own line of drones since 2005. In June, Beijing announced that five nations are interested in buying the Wing Loon UAV, a drone similar to the American Predator and that was likely what flew over the Senkaku Islands in September. Other Chinese drone models such as this prototype of a high-altitude surveillance aircraft similar to Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk and a stealth fighter drone reflect Beijing’s interest in developing a broad spectrum of unmanned aircraft. Last week, Beijing announced that it was building a new industrial base that will produce drones on massive scale. China’s desire for drone technology became front page news when it was revealed in September, 2013 that a People’s Liberation Army unit of computer hackers were targeting American defense contractors that manufacture drones. A 2012 report by the American Department of Defense Science Board warned that “China might easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.” This emphasis on drones is happening against the backdrop of the sharp rise of China’s arms industry. In October, the New York Times reported that Chinese arms manufacturers are aggressively pursuing export contracts with nations worldwide and developing complex military hardware such as fighter jets and missile defense systems.

The rise of regional tensions and the popularity of a conservative government in Tokyo is signalling a shift in Japan’s strategic posture. Japan’s post-Second World War constitution dictates that their Self-Defence Forces may only be used in combat when the nation is under direct attack. Members of the SDF are technically civilians and the Ministry of Defense is restricted from purchasing what may be considered offensive weapons. Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister and a right-wing nationalist, has made it clear that he intends to move away from the pacifist constitution; “We must act now in order to protect peace into the future,” Abe told the Japanese parliament in October. The territorial disputes, combined with the ever-present threat from North Korea, offer Prime Minister Abe a fresh opportunity to push through major changes in the role of the Self-Defence Forces.

The Self-Defence Forces are already evolving. A paper published by the Ministry of Defence in July stated that Japan should acquire drones and form a new infantry force based on the American Marine Corps that will be equipped with amphibious assault vehicles and tasked with taking back islands in case of an attack. Earlier this week, Japan installed missiles on Miyako Island (part of the Ryukyu Island chain) and Self-Defence forces will soon begin war games that are, in the words of an SDF spokesperson, “designed for the defence of islands.” Japan’s ability to monitor the islands was expanded by a newly-revised defence alliance with the United States, in which it was agreed that American Global Hawk surveillance drones will be deployed to Japan to replace the ageing U-2 aircraft. The deployment gives Japanese Air Self-Defence Forces the opportunity to become familiar with the aircraft before they acquire their own Global Hawk drones in 2015.

The political and military investments by both China and Japan suggest that the strategic picture in the East China Sea is rapidly changing. With their emphasis on drones, the Chinese are making great strides in upgrading their military hardware in ways that will allow them to project their influence and strike capabilities over an expanding area. Drones offer the possibility of monitoring far-away and tense territorial disputes without risking the lives of military personnel. Likewise, with the American Global Hawks, Japan is able to conduct high-altitude surveillance flights over their long chain of islands and prepare for the arrival of their own drones. The upcoming military exercises near the Miyako Islands and the formation of a new amphibian infantry force are clearly a reaction to perceived Chinese threats against their islands. Altering the Constitution would signify a major change in the regional strategic picture that could influence American military deployments in Asia as well as negatively impact Japan’s relations with their South Korean neighbor, where the memory of Japan’s brutal occupation persists.

The proliferation of unmanned surveillance aircraft and an agreement similar to President Eisenhower’s 1955 “Open Skies” proposal could help deter conflict by giving each side better knowledge of movements by the other. However, these measures would do little to calm the flaring nationalistic feeling in both countries or solve the question of ownership of undersea resources. The region is seeing a significant escalation in military preparedness in reaction to the tensions over the Senkaku Islands. The investments in drones by both sides could result in one of these aircraft acting as a catalyst for broader conventional military action. This possibility was made clear by China’s reaction to Japan’s revised rules of engagement concerning intrusive drones. The Senkaku Islands dispute is becoming the first case study of the role that drones play in escalating geopolitical tensions.

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