The Yomiuri ShimbunA formal agreement between Japan and China to launch a “maritime and air liaison mechanism” aimed at averting accidental clashes between the Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military was apparently prompted by their eagerness to prevent provocations from developing into full-blown military confrontations.
The Japanese and Chinese governments agreed on the terms without specifying the geographical range of the mechanism, given the issue over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Ambiguities remain over how to operate the mechanism, making its success an uncertainty.
The main pillar of the mechanism is the establishment of a hotline that allows senior officials from the Japanese and Chinese defense authorities to have direct contact. If a skirmish occurs in the field, the mechanism could facilitate high-level communication and prevent an escalation.
The two countries also agreed to make contact directly if their warships and aircraft come close to a collision. The agreement is based on rules such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), which the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Chinese Navy follow.
Defense officials from the two countries will meet regularly to discuss measures to improve the mechanism. A meeting at the director-general level or deputy director-general level, as well as a section-chief level meeting, will be held annually. Japan and China will take turns to host the two meetings.
Both governments agreed to set up an emergency liaison mechanism between their defense officials in 2007, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — then at the helm of his first administration — and then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held a summit.
However, negotiations stalled. Japan wanted the mechanism to exclude each country’s territorial waters and airspace, whereas China called for the opposite. Consequently, that mechanism was ambiguous, and lacked a specified range of application.
At a joint press conference Wednesday, Abe welcomed the launch of the latest mechanism: “It will ease tensions and make the East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship. We were able to produce results on the issue, which has existed for 10 years.”
However, the specifics — the number of hotlines to be set up, who speaks to who, and when to open it — have yet to be decided. It remains unknown whether the hotline will open before the mechanism becomes operational on June 8.
China claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and has routinely had its government vessels sail near the islets. Beijing could take a hard-line stance over this issue.