Japan's New Eyes on the Senkakus

New surveillance drones and new defense spending will tighten Japan's hold on the disputed islands without increasing risks.

Japan’s new government recently decided to raise the national defense budget and committed to spending additional stimulus money on military modernization. It also received a ministry of defense review that explored a variety of scenarios for future regional conflict. Given these and other recent developments, tensions over enduring territorial and historical disputes in East Asia are unlikely to subside soon. In fact, Japan under returning prime minister Shinzō Abe may be looking to significantly develop its ability to stand off against China in the ongoing situation in the East China Sea.

Japan’s Kyodo News agency recently reported that the government, on top of new spending on radar and other systems announced on January 8, may plan to deploy Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft by 2015. The U.S.-made UAV would be a useful early-warning and intelligence asset for the Self Defense Forces. Much like China’s fledgling UAV force, it could be mobilized to provide effective monitoring of ship movements near the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Those islands, which the People’s Republic of China labels the Diaoyu, are the fulcrum of an ongoing dispute over territorial and maritime integrity between mainland China, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan. However, while it is certainly the case that high tensions in the East China Sea have consistently seen the deployment of new hardware as the norm in recent years, an advanced unmanned force could actually give Japan a significant new edge in capabilities going forward—at least diplomatically.

The present domestic nationalist environment in Japan, much like that in China, has evolved and been shaped directly by regular incidents related to the disputed islands. Recent months have seen spiking public outrage as the result both of organized incursions into the waters around the islands by Chinese fishermen and of the transfer of significant hardware from the PLA Navy to the country’s maritime surveillance agency, an outfit that has been central in orchestrating ongoing incursions into waters claimed by the government of Japan.

And, of course, fishing fleets and new surveillance ships come on the back of Japanese nationalization of the small island chain, a mid-Autumn testing of China’s new aircraft carrier and significant anti-Japanese protests in Shenzen, Chengdu and elsewhere.

Each of these incidents has shaped an increasingly nationalist environment in Japan. This powerful influence comes, at least in part, from the sudden nature of new developments in disputed regions. Public sentiment has been swung by the abrupt appearance of new incursions against what is perceived on both sides to be an inalienable right to a national territory.

And it is in that environment that new leadership in both countries must operate. Absent changes in present trends, both Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping will need to tread carefully in their handling of bilateral relations. The domestic expectations that Abe in particular faces will not make significant compromise easy to sell, even in the name of stabilizing a tense situation. And any major move away from firm resolve with regards to China’s assertive behavior could, were he so inclined to do so, lead to a Pyrrhic political victory.

But effective and extensive deployment of non-offensive drones might just, going forward, be the kind of development that would give the new conservative government in Tokyo an edge when it comes to turning aside the inflammatory (at least for the Japanese public) rhetoric that comes from Beijing whenever a ship strays into and is intercepted in disputed waters.

The Global Hawk can loiter at high altitudes for more than a day and has a range, depending on the variant, of at least 7,500 nautical miles. A small force could effectively monitor activity near the disputed islands and patrol a significant perimeter out to sea.

In short, a drone fleet made up of Global Hawks or similar craft could provide reconnaissance so that the early signs of imminent incursions would be harder to miss. And while this might not provide a military advantage when it comes to preventing incidents, greater information would give the Abe government tools to more effectively control the political environment, both in and outside the country. For example, the timely release of information related to Chinese ship movements and other activities could gift Abe’s government the much needed capacity to mitigate disproportionate domestic reactions stemming from the incursions.

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