The United States is monitoring Chinese air activity from E-3 Sentry aircraft based at Kadena air base on Okinawa in response to increasing incidents of Chinese combat and surveillance aircraft shadowing U.S. P-3C and C-130 flights near the Ryukyu islands, according to Japanese and Korean media reports. Chinese pilots are more actively shadowing U.S. military aircraft flying through the airspace between China and Japan. Chinese aircraft have also reportedly violated Japanese airspace near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands several times since mid-December, prompting Japan to send its aircraft, including F-15Js, to monitor Chinese actions.
The use of E-3s would bolster U.S. coordination and provide advance warning of possible encounters with Chinese aircraft, but its purpose may also be to offset some of Japan's weaknesses in the area. Japan's Defense Ministry wants to supplement its early warning capability — its radar station on Miyako Island, near Okinawa, cannot detect Chinese aircraft flying over the sea at low altitudes. As the Japanese government continues to review its policies and capabilities for dealing with China's assertive stance on the disputed islands, Tokyo has identified several gaps in its ability to address Chinese actions. Japan will depend on the United States to fill these gaps as its military purchases new systems, shifts its existing forces and adjusts its rules of engagement.
What took place was effectively a change in the deeds to the islands, which in reality were already under Japanese control. Beijing, however, exploited the move to set in motion a nationalist campaign against Japanese businesses and products and to justify the new pace of Chinese maritime and air activity around the islands. China began sending more ships from its civilian maritime enforcement agencies to survey the waters around the islands and added aerial surveillance flights as part of a strategy to either force Japanese discussions over the islands or to demonstrate China's presence and authority. In the first case, Japan does not acknowledge China's claim to the islands, and thus it does not recognize a dispute, instead characterizing Beijing's moves as Chinese aggression. In the second instance, China sees its increased presence as a way to either cow the other claimant or to help China build a stronger case should the dispute ever go to international arbitration.
Japan has already recognized several shortcomings in its own defense capabilities to counter Chinese actions. Tokyo is reviving discussions
about moving some of its F-15s from Naha on Okinawa to Shimoji-shima, which would place the aircraft just 190 kilometers (118 miles) from the Senkakus, rather than 420 kilometers away, thus halving the current 15-20 minute flight time required to scramble Japanese warplanes to the islands. Tokyo is also seeking to develop or purchase additional unmanned aircraft, including the U.S. Global Hawk, to maintain more active monitoring of the area around the disputed islands, as well as of the Chinese coast 330 kilometers away. The Japanese Coast Guard is also planning a 12-vessel special patrol unit to monitor the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But most Japanese plans are slated for implementation no sooner than 2015. This leaves Tokyo unable to effectively counter Chinese activity for two more years.
The United States' Pacific Presence
This is where the United States comes in. Tokyo and Washington are discussing a joint approach to the disputed area and to Chinese actions. Washington has said it does not recognize any sovereignty over the islands, but it does recognize Japanese administrative control, meaning that by default, Washington supports Japan. But the United States does not want a violent clash between Japan and China. By increasing its direct involvement, Washington can reassure Tokyo of its support, softening the pressure for Japan to take more aggressive action, and it can serve notice to China that more aggressive action would involve not only Japan but also the United States.
But this approach assumes China is willing to step back. In China's view, the United States is trying to contain Beijing and encroach on its sphere of influence. Beijing sees the evidence of this in Washington's pivot to Asia, in the expansion of its political and defense relations with Southeast Asian states and in its strengthened military posture throughout the region, particularly in Australia and the Philippines. China's leaders see in some sense a Western attempt to prevent China, as a non-Western state, from taking its rightful place as a major regional power and international player. Chinese academics and officials raise the specter of a U.S. containment strategy similar to that used in the Cold War against the Soviets. Some also see a deeper U.S. and Western resistance to non-western power, an attitude they see going back to Western moves to block Japan's emergence as a modern imperial nation in the early 20th Century.
The involvement of the United States, then, may not suffice to alter China's actions around the disputed islands. Indeed, it may encourage China to more boldly test U.S. resolve and to assert its claim not only to the islands, but also to China's expanded sphere of influence. In 2001, after a collision between a Chinese Jian-8 and a U.S. EP-3E, China held the plane on Hainan Island and demanded a U.S. apology. But more than just seeking an apology or trying to pry secrets from the plane's airframe, China used the opportunity to try to show other Asian states that the United States and its military could be countered in Asia
Beijing's ability to resist U.S. demands and Washington's unwillingness to intervene militarily were, for China, a victory. The 9/11 attacks on the United States shifted U.S. attention and the stresses of U.S.-China relations were quickly deprioritized. But those tensions are rising once again, and at a time when more military flights and ships are moving near the disputed area, Beijing may be on the lookout for another opportunity to reshape regional perceptions of Washington's military commitment to Asia. And with the United States engaged for more than a decade in a war in Afghanistan, Beijing is calculating that Washington will continue to seek to avoid new conflict in Asia, giving China a short window of opportunity to make its point.