June 10, 2014 7:00 pm JST

The truth about military aircraft encounters in East China Sea

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Tensions have been running high in the East China Sea, with Chinese fighter jets flying unusually close to Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) aircraft, the latest of a recent spate of dangerous incidents in disputed airspace. The flybys have raised concerns within the Japanese government that China's military might not have full control of some of its members.

      The latest incident took place in airspace claimed by both countries as part of their air-defense identification zones. On May 24, two Chinese SU-27 jets came close to a Japanese SDF OP-3C surveillance plane -- one of them as close as 50 meters -- at around 11:00 a.m.

     Then, about one hour later, two Chinese jets of the same type flew close to an SDF YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft -- one of them as close as 30 meters.

     At the time, China was carrying out joint maritime exercises with Russia. The surveillance plane belongs to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, while the electronic intelligence aircraft belongs to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Japan said the flights were part of a routine reconnaissanse mission.

    For supersonic jets to approach other planes to as close as 30 and 50 meters is highly dangerous as they could collide with each other easily. Some experts said that the Chinese military took the provocative action to flex its muscles. But interviews with several Japanese government sources show the situation was not that simple.

     Japan has withheld one important piece of information on the latest incident: The Chinese jet that flew within 30 and 50 meters of the SDF planes were the same plane flown by the same pilot. This fact was confirmed by the aircraft's registration number on its fuselage, the sources said, and the other Chinese jet kept a certain distance from the Japanese planes throughout the incidents.

     Many Japanese government officials now believe that the Chinese pilot acted on his own when he flew dangerously close to the SDF planes.

     "There are strong indications that this man acted on his own discretion, rather than on orders from above," one Japanese government official said.

Unlikely scenario

Certainly, there is a theoretical possibility that the Chinese military's top brass ordered the pilot to fly dangerously close to the SDF planes. But many Japanese government officials doubt it.

     "Even the Chinese military is too scared to order its pilots to close in on (military planes of other countries) that rapidly -- unless they have full confidence in the pilots' skills," one official in charge of national security said. "Judging from the skill of that pilot, it is inconceivable that the command center issued such an order to him." 

     The Chinese jet in question was flying so unstably that it was shaking up and down when it came dangerously close to the SDF planes, according to other sources.

Insufficient training

The Chinese military has expanded its fleet of fighter jets more than six-fold in the past 15 years. "As they were in a hurry to foster pilots, they have failed to provide enough training and education about international rules to the pilots," said a senior SDF official.

     In fact, there are indications that many, if not all, of the provocations by China that have occurred in recent years were the results of on-site military personnel acting on their own judgment.

     Tensions particularly heightened in November 2004, when a Chinese submarine violated Japan's territorial waters in the Sea of Japan.  "There is a strong possibility that this was also an independent action by on-site people," said Bonji Ohara, research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a think tank, who was serving as defense attache at the Japanese embassy in Beijing at the time of the 2004 incident.

     "Immediately after the incident, I met with a senior official at the Chinese navy headquarters," Ohara said.  "The official admitted that, initially, he did not understand what had happened."

     About eight months later, Ohara continued, "a military staff member at the same headquarters told me: 'A similar thing will never happen as we gave lectures about international law to (people on board) a fleet of ships on site'." 

     In January 2013, a Chinese naval vessel locked its fire-control radar on an SDF ship, a highly provocative action that could have triggered a defensive move from the Japanese side. This is also likely to have been a result of on-site Chinese military personnel taking independent action: the Chinese navy joined 20 other countries, including Japan and the U.S., in April this year in agreeing to a code of conduct that bans radar-locking on military ships of other countries.

     Even so, it is also true that the Chinese leadership has created an atmosphere that would tolerate military personnel making provocations.

     The current leadership led by President Xi Jinping is stepping up its anti-Japan propaganda campaign and drive to become a strong country. It would be natural for many Chinese solidiers to be tempted to play hardball with Japan.

    At a time when China is rapidly expanding its military, inadequate control of its forces could trigger an unexpected crisis. Japan is calling for the establishment of a bilateral crisis management framework.

    Building such a channel of communications would be in the interest of China's leadership, which is stuggling to ensure the continued stability of its regime.