Air, sea liaison mechanism needs work

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunIt has been one month since Japan and China began operating a maritime and air liaison mechanism. While the mechanism is aimed at averting accidental clashes between the Chinese military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, its effectiveness remains unknown, as there is no sign of opening a hotline between senior defense officials.  

Communication between units

The mechanism was launched on June 8, starting with direct communications among ships and airplanes. The mechanism is expected to be operated as follows: If a vessel of the Maritime Self-Defense Force encounters a vessel of the Chinese Navy in high seas around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, the MSDF will ask the Chinese vessel about its purpose of navigation, with the Chinese military replying by saying, for example, “We are patrolling.”

On June 29, three weeks after the start of the operation, a Chinese Navy hospital ship sailing around the Senkaku Islands entered the Japanese contiguous zone. An MSDF vessel asked the Chinese vessel about its intention of navigation in accordance with the mechanism. While details of the communication have not been revealed, it was announced that the hospital ship did not change its route but spent about an hour crossing the contiguous zone.

The liaison mechanism is based on international criteria including the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), and the Convention on International Civil Aviation and other existing rules. The mechanism uses specific frequencies and communication is in English. Before the existence of CUES, there had been incidents in which vessels ignored questions from other vessels and took provocative actions.

According to the Defense Ministry, there were five cases, including the case of the hospital ship, in which Chinese Navy vessels traveled in waters surrounding Japan over the period of one month since the launch of the mechanism. There has been no accidental clash yet, but Japan and China seem to be groping in the darkness for ways to operate the mechanism well.

‘Gray area’

The scope of the mechanism is not clearly presented. It is unclear whether it will actually work in the case of an emergency around the Senkaku Islands, the sovereignty of which is also claimed by China.

Another challenge is that the mechanism is not applied to government-owned vessels of the China Coast Guard, which have repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters, and those of the Japan Coast Guard dealing with such Chinese vessels.

The CCG was put under the Central Military Commission that supervises the People’s Liberation Army on July 1. It is almost certain that cooperation between vessels of the CCG and those of the Chinese Navy will be strengthened. Under such circumstances, a clash with a government-owned vessel could fall under a “gray-area,” which would be difficult to deal with. Some officials of the Japanese government call for applying the mechanism also to the CCG and the JCG .

Difficult within this year?

If tensions increase at the site of an incident, the hotline on which senior officials on both sides directly negotiate could be the last resort to avert a clash. The Japanese government aims to set up the hotline before the end of this year, but preparations are slow.

The Japanese side plans to set it up at the Joint Staff Office, which is in charge of integrating operations of SDF units. On the other hand, out of the five theater commands where Chinese ground, naval, air and other forces are operated integrally, the Chinese government has not chosen one in which the hotline will be set up. There is also a plan to set up the hotline at the Chinese Defense Ministry, which is not responsible for operating military units. However, this scenario prompts concern: “Is it possible to avert clashes in case of an emergency by communicating with the Chinese Defense Ministry, which does not have command over military forces?” questioned a source close to the Japanese government.

Under the mechanism, a director-general or deputy director-general level meeting and a section-chief level experts meeting will be held annually, and Japan and China will take turns to host the meetings. The timing of the annual meetings has not been decided yet, and the Japanese government is calling for holding the first meetings before the end of this year.Speech

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