The long-running territorial dispute between China and Japan over a remote group of islands is in the spotlight this week as the two countries conduct massive military exercises. Analysts warn the drills and China’s increased use of drone aircraft in the region raise the risk of an unintended confrontation.
Japan on Friday begins a week of live-fire military drills involving 34,000 troops, navy destroyers, jet fighters and amphibious assault vehicles.
The exercises include operations to defend remote islands from attack and come as Tokyo and Beijing are testing each other in a war of words over the disputed Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China.
Japanese media report Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month approved a plan to shoot down any foreign drones that refuse to leave Japan's airspace.
Kyodo news agency reports Abe decided on the tough policy in response to China's flying a drone in September near the islands.
Although not yet officially confirmed, Japan has for months been considering the measure to protect the waters surrounding the Japan-administered islands.
China's military spokesman said an attack on its aircraft would be considered an act of war and that it would strike back.
Rory Medcalf, the director of the international security program at Sydney's Lowey Institute, said China's introduction of drones into the dispute, and pledge to defend them, has made the situation more unpredictable.
“So, the Chinese have kind of put Japan into an awkward position. If it lets them pass, or if it lets them fly over disputed, contested airspace then China is further establishing its presence there," he said. "But, if Japan strikes back, then it's really escalating tensions potentially towards conflict.”
Beijing has been aggressively developing its unmanned aerial vehicles and last year unveiled armed attack drones that appeared to be modeled on U.S. versions.
China's Foreign Ministry played down its military's talk of war by implying Japan was hyping the situation in order to build up its defenses.
Japan's neighbors, who suffered from its World War II aggression, are wary of plans by Tokyo to increase the military operations allowed under its pacifist constitution.
But China is the one asserting its power in the region and testing Japan's defense of the islands. Beijing sends weekly, and sometimes daily, patrols of ships and jet fighters near the islands, forcing Japan to respond by scrambling its own jets.
Abe this week said Japan would not tolerate any use of force by China to change the status quo. Beijing responded by calling Japanese politicians “arrogant” and “self-deceiving” over the dispute.
“The real problem isn't really so much the war of words, it is that the jet scrambling and fleets navigating in the disputed area, there could be a miscalculation with serious consequences,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Japan's Temple University.
China’s official Xinhua news agency this month revealed Chinese nuclear submarines are being sent on regular sea patrols. Chinese destroyers earlier this year for the first time sailed the strait between Russia and Japan, raising eyebrows in Tokyo.
Japan's exercises begin as China finishes up its own military exercises. China's navy earlier this month began weeks of drills in the West Pacific with, for the first time, all three of its navy fleets. Xinhua reports the exercises are aimed at improving combat abilities on the high seas.
Medcalf said the coinciding exercises could also help the two sides release some steam and prevent more threatening posturing. But he said Japan-China hostility is not likely to cool down any time soon.
“Tension is becoming the new normal in relations between China and Japan. And, the best we can probably hope for is that they find informal ways of managing this, informal ways of their navies and their maritime forces really signaling to one another or keeping out of each others way," Medcalf said. "It's possible that over the next, I guess, ten to twenty years they will work this out and perhaps reach some new political understandings. The danger zone will be, I think, in the next few years before they reach these new levels of understanding.”
Medcalf said one positive step would be if the countries establish operational hotlines between their forces to prevent unintentional confrontations from turning into a bigger conflict.