Tokyo’s new air-defense rules, published in Jan. 28, could compel Japanese jet fighters to force down Chinese planes over disputed territory.
The rules are the latest escalation of military and diplomatic tensions in the Western Pacific, where China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and The Philippines all maintain competing claims on islands, sea territory and airspace.
In late November, China announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone over international waters in the East China Sea—a region that just happens to include the Senkaku Islands, claimed by Tokyo and Beijing.
Beijing wants all incoming foreign planes to radio in to Chinese controllers before entering the zone. The problem is, Japan also has an ADIZ over the Senkakus.
China’s November zone announcement kicked off months of back and forth bureaucratic and military maneuvers between China and Japan and neighboring South Korea. In December Seoul added a new ADIZ of its own in an area overlapping with Chinese and Japanese zones.
Some of the world’s airlines shrugged and simply complied with the new Chinese rules. But not the biggest Japanese airlines—nor the major carriers in South Korea. Japan and the U.S. promptly challenged the Chinese zone by sending in warplanes unannounced—in America’s case, a pair of lumbering B-52 bombers that penetrated the ID zone on Nov. 25.
“There was tension on the U.S. side as the flight progressed,” Robert Dorr wrote in Combat Aircraft, “but in the end not much happened.” Dorr reported that China tracked the B-52s for two hours but did not attempt to intercept them.
The bombers proved China’s ADIZ to be somewhat toothless. But Tokyo is determined to back up its own ID rules with force. In the airspace over the Senkakus, where both China and Japan have their air-defense zones, Japanese jet fighters will intercept intruding aircraft that don’t announce themselves in advance, according to the Jan. 28 announcement.
“The authority of the pilot is limited to forced landing instructions and warning shots,” according to one Japanese news report, which also mentions that Japanese fighters last fired warning shots in 1987, after intrusion by Soviet planes.
The new Japanese rules reportedly have been in development since Chinese coast guard planes circled over the Senkakus two years ago. But today the Western Pacific is a much tenser place than it was in 2012. For that reason, “the review of the use-of-weapons authority has become an urgent issue,” the news report notes.
Just a couple days before Tokyo published its new rules, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang expressed his “strong dissatisfaction” with Japan’s own complaints regarding China’s ADIZ. “It’s just and legitimate for China to set up the ADIZ, about which Japan is not entitled to criticize.”