Japanese officials, already concerned about China’s growing naval presence in the region, say Chinese military aircraft have started harassing Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ aircraft over the East China Sea.
Ever since the September collision between a Chinese trawler and two Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Chinese military aircraft have started to approach SDF aircraft close enough to identify with the naked eye, sources said.
Along with this new behavior since October, China’s air activities against Japan have been substantially stepped up since earlier this year. The number of scrambles that the Air SDF has launched against Chinese aircraft since the beginning of this fiscal year had already reached 44 as of Dec. 22, according to the Defense Ministry.
The figure is the highest in the past five years.
The Maritime SDF has been deploying EP-3 signal intelligence reconnaissance aircraft on top of P-3C patrol aircraft to the airspace northwest of the Nansei island chain on an almost daily basis to monitor Chinese air and naval activities in the area.
The Air SDF routinely intercepts electronic signals with its signal intelligence aircraft.
These reconnaissance aircraft fly within Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and around the median line between Japan and China. Because the ADIZ is not the same as territorial airspace, foreign aircraft flying into the zone are not considered to be violating airspace. But failure to notify authorities beforehand about a flight into the zone inevitably leads to aircraft being scrambled.
Until recently, Chinese fighter jets and fighter-bombers had tended to avoid entering Japan’s ADIZ. But that changed in October, a month after the Senkaku Islands incident that triggered a major diplomatic row between the two countries
n October, a JH-7 fighter-bomber of the Chinese Navy not only entered Japan’s ADIZ, but also flew past the median line and approached close enough to make a visual identification of the SDF aircraft. Japan considers the median line as marking the boundary of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
When SDF aircraft were scrambled, the Chinese aircraft turned around and went back. The two nations are scrambling their aircraft in response to what the other side is doing.
One military insider pointed out that this could lead to a dangerous situation.
“Chinese military pilots are less skilled than Japanese and American pilots and they fly erratically at times,” said one official.
There is concern that frequent scrambles could escalate into a major incident like the one in 2001 when a U.S. Navy EP-3 collided in midair with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot.
Chinese aircraft have also become much more bold in their surveillance of Japan’s aircraft.
On Dec. 7, during the “Keen Sword” joint military exercise between Japan and the United States, F-15 fighter jets scrambled out of Naha Air Base because an unidentified aircraft was approaching the ADIZ. It eventually entered the ADIZ and flew along the Japan-China median line.
The ASDF fighter pilots visually confirmed that it was a Chinese Navy Y-8X maritime patrol aircraft and returned to the base.
On March 12, a Y-8 airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft for the first time flew past the median line and approached near Japan.
There is speculation that the range of land-based radars along China’s coast line facing the East China Sea extends only as far as the median line. However, if an AEW aircraft with a powerful radar system aboard should approach Japan by flying past the median line, Chinese military aircraft theoretically could expand their range of operations to the entire Nansei island chain, including the main Okinawa island.
As of Dec. 22, SDF aircraft had been scrambled 44 times against Chinese aircraft this fiscal year, according to Defense Ministry officials. The figure is already double that for all of fiscal 2006.
One reason for the change in China’s policy is evident from a report in a military organ, which said that “Beijing did not consider its EEZ to be part of international waters.”
Based on that logic, the report criticized the activity of U.S. military aircraft in the skies over China’s EEZ, a sign that the Chinese military is eager to limit such activities.