By J. Michael Cole
The Japanese government on July 25 said it was alarmed by increased Chinese activity near its territory and said it had scrambled fighter aircraft the previous day after a Chinese surveillance aircraft flew over waters near Okinawa and disputed islets in the East China Sea.
Although it stayed in international waters, the Japanese defense ministry said the presence of the Y-8 early-warning aircraft in the Miyako Strait set a precedent and was a sign of “China’s escalating maritime advance.” People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships have entered the Strait before, but this was the first time that a Chinese aircraft flew over the area and crossed beyond the so-called first island chain.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is about to embark on a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, called the incident unprecedented.
And while Japanese F-15 aircraft were shadowing the Y-8, Tokyo announced it had spotted four Chinese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan and have been the object of rising tensions between the two Asian giants.
Images circulated on the Internet, reportedly taken by the Japanese Coast Guard, show one of the Chinese vessels bearing the red, white and blue stripes of the new unified “China Maritime Police.”
Responding to Japan’s alarm, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said the Y-8 flight was a scheduled annual arrangement that was not directed at any specific countries or targets, adding that it was “in accordance with relevant international law and practice.”
Meanwhile, in another sign that Tokyo may seek to modify its Pacifist constitution, an interim report of new National Defense Program Guidelines by the Japanese Defense Ministry, which could be released as early as July 26, said the Japanese military should acquire amphibious units similar to those used by the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Commenting on the report, the Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers said the report calls for an amphibious force capable of conducting landing operations on remote islands. It also reportedly recommends the acquisition of UAVs to conduct round-the-clock long-range surveillance over Japan’s territory and to monitor North Korea for possible ballistic missile launches.
Japanese media reports earlier this year said the Japanese Defense Ministry was seeking to introduce Global Hawk UAVs near the Senkakus by 2015 at the earliest.
Japan currently doesn’t have UAV capability, but the U.S. military was rumored to have deployed Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, which are likely used in part to monitor Chinese naval activities.
For its part, the PLA has invested heavily in UAV technology in recent years, both through domestic development and foreign acquisitions. It counts a variety of land- and sea-based models. In 2012 the State Council approved an (apparently partly retroactive) “national marine zoning” program for the years 2011-2020 to establish integrated, three dimensional, high-precision monitoring of China’s maritime areas, with UAVs expected to be a strong component of those efforts.