How China-Japan relations will benefit from new crisis management agreement
Zhou Bo says the hard-won air and maritime agreement signed between China and Japan is an indication of the vulnerability of relations between the two Asian powers, and calls on both to build on this good start
Premier Li Keqiang’s official visit to Japan last week, the first by a Chinese premier since the Japanese government “bought” the Diaoyu Islands in 2012, saw one of the most significant outcomes – the signing of a crisis management agreement on which the two sides spent 10 years of on-and-off negotiations.
The agreement comes as a huge relief. Officially described as a “maritime and air liaison mechanism between the defence ministries of China and Japan”, it is meant to defuse tensions arising out of close encounters between Chinese and Japanese military aircraft and naval vessels. Although there is yet to be an incident, the chances of dangerous encounters are on the rise with each passing year.
In 2013, China announced the establishment of an air defence identification zone, which overlaps slightly with Japan’s own zone. While Japan strongly protested against the move, it is not legally prohibited.
An air defence identification zone is an airspace that extends beyond a country’s territory to give the country more time to respond to possibly hostile aircraft. Since the first such zone was established by the United States in 1950, over 20 countries in China’s periphery, including Japan, South Korea, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Russia, have established their own zones.
Japan’s zone, created by the US after the second world war, is much larger than Japanese territory and extends to within 130km of China’s coast. Thus, Japan’s hysterical reaction to China’s much smaller zone was strange.
Watch: China’s air defence zone to ‘protect sovereignty’
In recent years, the Chinese navy and air force have stepped up military exercises in the country’s exclusive economic zones or in the high seas in the Western Pacific Ocean. These exercises, however legitimate, are becoming dangerous. Whenever Chinese military aircraft and ships conduct training in the East China Sea or transit through the international sea lanes in the Japanese straits to the Western Pacific, they are followed and monitored by Japanese military aircraft and ships, sometimes at close quarters. The Japanese media hype adds to the acrimony, leading in turn to Chinese protests.
This is why a mutually agreed code of conduct is needed.
The mechanism reportedly allows direct communication between two pilots or captains if their warships or aircraft come unexpectedly into proximity. It is obvious that such frontline direct contact is crucial to avoid accidents. These tactical communications will be further supported by annual reviews at the higher strategic-level meetings of the defence agencies.
The beauty of the mechanism is that it applies to all situations regardless of location. This is extremely important for China and Japan because their overlapping air defence zones cover the disputed islands which China calls “Diaoyu” and Japan calls “Senkaku”. Therefore, if one country tries to exclude the islands from the mechanism, it means that country insists on its sovereignty over the islands, which would only invite protests from the other country. Thanks to the political wisdom of both sides, the mechanism does not specify geographic scope.
In so doing, it comes in line with the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea approved by 21 navies, including China and Japan, in the Western Pacific, which doesn’t specify geographical scope. Instead, with a host of operational and communication procedures, it calls for the maintenance of safe speed and safe distance between naval vessels of different nations to avoid collisions.
The consequences of a possible collision of Chinese and Japanese aircraft or ships would be more catastrophic than might be imagined, given the mistrust between the two countries – due to a troubled history with Japan on China’s part and fear of an ever stronger China on Japan’s part.
When the Chinese J-8 and an American EP-3 collided in 2001, the two governments showed great flexibility in spite of harsh rhetoric. The American crews were released in 11 days after the US government apologised twice to the Chinese government. Sadly, such flexibility and resilience are not present in China-Japan relations. An incident at sea or in the air may easily inflame relations between the two countries.
Even compared with similar arrangements in the region, such an agreement is long overdue. For example, China has established a series of confidence-building measures with some major powers and neighbouring countries, but noticeably not with Japan. China now has direct telephonic communications with the US, Russia, North Korea and Vietnam.
The Sino-Indian border is managed through such concrete measures as not stalking the patrolling troops of the other side and holding border meetings at regular intervals.
The Chinese and US militaries set up a maritime consultative mechanism as early as 1998. In 2014, the two sides agreed to notify each other of major military activities and observe the rules of behaviour for unplanned air and maritime encounters. China and Vietnam have signed an agreement on principles guiding maritime issues and another agreement on joint patrol between the two navies in the Beibu Gulf. There have even been dialogues between the navies of China and Indonesia, a non-claimant to the South China Sea dispute.
The fact that such a badly needed but not very sophisticated mechanism took 10 years to negotiate reflects how vulnerable China-Japan relations are. This is most unfortunate, not only because they are close neighbours, but also because a persistent less-than-amicable relationship between the two powers would have a negative impact upon the whole region.
In comparison, although the China-US relationship is far from smooth, it is supported by dozens of different mechanisms at various levels, coupled with frequent exchanges and confidence-building measures. China and the US have had a series of joint exercises aimed at avoiding accidents during close encounters. Even China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have announced an exercise for unplanned encounters to be held by the end of the year.
The China-Japan maritime and air liaison mechanism is a good beginning, but precisely because it is so hard-won, the best way to avoid incidents is to embark on the next important step – more frank exchanges at all levels and drills on good seamanship and airmanship.
Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with PLA Academy of Military Science in China