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Issues Surrounding the China-Japan Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism

2018-09-28 22:29:38       source:NISCSS

September 25, 2018

The China-Japan Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism is a crisis management mechanism established by the defense departments of both countries to prevent friction or conflict in their frontline forces of the sea and air. In May 2018, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Tokyo to attend the 7th China-Japan-ROK Leaders’ Meeting and to pay an official visit to Japan. As one of the important achievements of the high-level meeting, the two defense departments signed a memorandum on the Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism and decided to activate the Mechanism on June 8. According to the previous public statements of the two countries, the purpose of the establishment of the Mechanism is to jointly control the maritime crisis and promote peace, friendship, and cooperation in the East China Sea. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that he is striving to officially visit China this year. The Mechanism has added positive factors to the transformation of China-Japan relations this year.


The Origin and Consultation Process of the Mechanism


The Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism originated from an international agreement in peacetime to prevent accidents of maritime and air forces, and to manage the crisis. It can be traced back to the Agreement on Preventing Accidents on and above the High Seas signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972 and the Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities signed in 1989. Based on the US-Soviet agreement, 10 countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, Greece, and Portugal signed a bilateral agreement with the former Soviet Union to prevent dangerous incidents at sea. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea signed a maritime military security agreement with Russia.


China signed the Agreement on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism for Strengthening Maritime Military Safety with the United States in 1998. It is an agreement to prevent and control maritime and airspace accidents and ensure military and air security. In 2014, China and the United States signed two Memorandums on Enhancing Military Confidence Building Measures for the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters and the Major Military Action Notification Mechanism. In the same year, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) approved the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in Qingdao. The aim of these agreements and mechanisms is to promote the establishment of international maritime and airspace military rules in peacetime, establish a rules-based maritime and air force operational order, avoid dangerous events at sea and in the air, ensure the safety of ships, aircraft and crew, and establish a mechanism for communication which will play an important role in effectively managing potential crises.

In the long period after the World War II, there was very little military interaction between China and Japan, and the issue of military and air security was ignored. At the end of the 20th century, with the increased power of the Chinese naval and air force, the number of maritime and air forces transiting the Japanese archipelago through the many channels in and out of the Western Pacific gradually increased, and the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and disputes over the jurisdiction of sea area emerged, Japan began to closely track, monitor and reconnoiter China’s maritime and airspace forces. Encounters and dangerous interactions between their front line maritime and air forces in the East China Sea and the Western Pacific have increased. Affected by historical issues, China and Japan have had little mutual trust in the defense field, and there is deep hostility between their maritime and airspace forces. When the warships and planes of the two countries meet, there are frequent dangerous critical operations such as tracking and anti-tracking, surveillance and counter-monitoring, dangerous approaching, fire-controlled radar emission, and even the launch of jamming ammos by fighters. Most of the implementers of these dangerous actions are the Japanese maritime and airspace forces. The Japanese actions have seriously impeded the navigation safety and activities of Chinese ships and aircraft, which can easily lead to misunderstandings and misjudgments between two sides, and even lead to dangerous incidents and armed conflicts.


In 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan and reached a consensus with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on establishing a maritime liaison mechanism. The purpose of this mechanism is to prevent accidental conflicts between the maritime and air forces of the two sides, to effectively deal with and control maritime and airspace emergencies, and to prevent accidents from escalating into military conflicts which can affect the political and diplomatic relations between the two countries. The main content of the mechanism is to establish maritime and airspace force communication and operation procedures between the two countries, and to establish communication and consultation mechanisms for the two defense departments. The mechanism mainly emphasizes Crisis Prevention and Crisis Management.


From April 2008 to June 2012, the two sides conducted three rounds of consultations on the mechanism and reached three points of consensus: first, the need to set up a hotline between the two defense departments; second, the need to unify the radio frequency and language of two countries’ ships and aircraft; and third, the need for the two defense departments to conduct regular exchanges. Afterwards, influenced by Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands, there was great damage to bilateral relations and political mutual trust between China and Japan, and the establishment of a liaison mechanism was therefore stagnant.


In January 2015, the liaison mechanism expert group consultation was resumed in Tokyo. The two sides reached a consensus on four aspects. First, they confirmed the purpose, composition, operation methods, and related technical specifications of the mechanism. Second, the two sides agreed to change the name from the Maritime Liaison Mechanism to Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism. This change would be more conducive to bilateral exchanges and consultations on military and maritime security issues. Third, the two sides believed that the basic technical conditions for the commencement of operations of the Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism are already in place, and agreed to start the mechanism as soon as possible. Fourth, they reached consensus on improving communication rules. However, after the mechanism was delayed, and the main obstacle was the difficulty faced by the two sides to reach an agreement on the applicable sea area of the mechanism. The draft proposed by the Japanese side advocates that the territorial sea and airspace are not within the scope of the mechanism. The Japanese government believed that if the territorial sea and airspace are included in the scope of the mechanism, this might indicate to China that Chinese warships or aircraft may contact Japanese sides through the mechanism even if they invade the Diaoyu Islands. The consultation process has been deadlocked until December 2017, when China and Japan reached a consensus in the High-level Consultation on Ocean Affairs: “The two sides have made positive progress in establishing and launching the Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism of the defense department.” According to Japanese media reports, the scope of the mechanism will focus in the direction that does not involve the territorial sea boundary. The two sides hence have finally reached a consensus on the mechanism. After 10 years of hardship, this reflects the intricateness of China-Japan relations and the military security issues between China and Japan.


The Dangerous Interactions between China and Japan


The current military interaction between China and Japan is mainly in the East China Sea and the Western Pacific. Due to historical issues, disputes of China-Japan Diaoyu Islands sovereignty and jurisdiction of the East China Sea, and structural strategic contradictions between China and the US-Japan military alliance, China-Japan military mutual trust is relatively low. Both sides’ military forces were regarded as potential targets when they encountered, and these were not benign interactions.


First, the dangerous interactions caused by the overlap of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) should be discussed. Japan began to implement its ADIZ in 1969, and its ADIZ is an annular band-shaped area surrounding Japan. In the direction of the East China Sea, the Japanese ADIZ is only 130 kilometers away from the coastline of China’s Zhejiang Province, and even covers the Chinese territory of the Diaoyu Islands, as well as China’s oil and gas facilities in the East China Sea. In 2010, the Japanese Defense Ministry extended the ADIZ two nautical miles west of the Yonaguni Island airspace, closer to Taiwan Island. Japan monitors the ADIZ mainly through early warning aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, and land-based air-to-air warning radar. When Chinese aircraft enter the Japanese ADIZ, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) generally launches fighters to carry out tracking and surveillance and to implement countermeasures.


On November 23, 2013, the Chinese government announced the designation of its East China Sea ADIZ and issued the Aircraft Identification Rules for the East China Sea ADIZ. Aircrafts in the East China Sea ADIZ are required to notify the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Civil Aviation Administration of the flight plan. For aircraft that do not cooperate with the identification or refuse to obey the instructions, the Chinese armed forces will take defensive emergency measures. The Japanese government immediately announced that it could not accept China’s East China Sea ADIZ, and Japan has frequently carried out long-term close tracking and surveillance of Chinese fighters performing normal routine patrol missions. On the same day when Chinese announced its ADIZ, two JASDF F-15 fighters approached and monitored the Chinese patrol aircraft for 34 minutes, and the nearest distance was only about 10 meters.


Table 1. Emergency launches of Japanese fighters to react to Chinese aircraft in the Japanese ADIZ


Source: Japanese Defense White Papers


Second, there is a need to discuss the dangerous interactions caused by weak military mutual trust between the two sides. In 2013, Japan claimed that Chinese ships had used fire control radar to illuminate the Japanese maritime and airspace force. On January 19, 2013, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera claimed that a Chinese Navy Jiangkai-class frigate (type 054) used its anti-aircraft missile control radar to illuminate a Japanese helicopter which had been launched from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Oonami in the East China Sea. On January 30, 2013, a Chinese Jiangwei II (053H3G) frigate used fire control radar to illuminate the JMSDF destroyer Yuudachi when the distance between two ships was only 3 kilometers. Itsunori Onodera said that the Japanese frigate had triggered a warning of impending battle. This is something that has never happened between the maritime forces of the two countries so far. In response to this matter, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense responded that the Japanese statement was completely inconsistent with the facts. The Chinese side refuted the close-range surveillance, and they claimed that interference of Japanese forces had jeopardized the safety of Chinese ships, which was the root cause of the maritime security problem between the two countries.


On May 24, 2014, during a Sino-Russian joint military exercise in the East China Sea, two Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) aircraft intruded into the Chinese East China Sea ADIZ to carry out reconnaissance. Chinese military aircraft were forced to take necessary measures. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense stated that the Japanese military’s dangerous actions were serious violations of international law, which could have easily led to misunderstandings and misjudgments, and may have even led to airborne accidents.


On June 17, 2016, two JASDF F-15 fighters approached and used fire control radar to illuminate two Chinese Su-30 fighters when the Chinese fighters were patrolling in the East China Sea ADIZ. The Chinese fighters responded decisively, taking measures such as tactical maneuvers, and the Japanese fighters escaped after ejecting infrared interference ammo. A spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense pointed out that the provocative actions of Japanese fighters could have easily led to airborne accidents, endangering the safety of personnel on both sides and undermining regional peace and stability. Although the Japanese later denied using fire-control radar, both sides confirmed that their fighters had confronted each other. Foreign media reported that this was the first time that both countries’ air forces had conducted simulated dogfights since World War II.


On December 10, 2016, two JASDF F-15 fighters performed close-range interference on six Chinese fighters and launched jamming ammo when Chinese fighters went to the Western Pacific via the Miyako Strait for training. A spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense stated that the actions of the Japanese aircraft were dangerous, unprofessional, and undermined the freedom of overflight granted by international law.


Fire-control radar is a radar device installed on a ship or aircraft to provide precise target information and guidance for artillery and missiles. It emits electromagnetic waves to target, which means that the ship’s fire control system has been activated and has been aimed at the target. Therefore, a cannon or missile can be fired to attack a target at any time. Fire-control radar exposure is a very hostile behavior. During the Cold War, the surface ships of the United States and the Soviet Union often conducted similar interactions in close confrontation. Jammer ammo has been used by fighters as defensive tactics to lead enemy missiles away from real targets. The use of fire-control radar or jamming ammo is essentially a fighting action. It is indeed a very dangerous act in peacetime, which is likely to lead to misunderstandings and misjudgments by both parties.


Third, there is a need to discuss the dangerous interactions caused by military confrontations over the Diaoyu Islands. On September 11, 2012, the Japanese government announced that it would nationalize the Diaoyu Islands, which triggered a strong protest from the Chinese government. Chinese government ships began to conduct normalized law enforcement patrols near the Diaoyu Islands, and occasionally entered the territorial sea of the Diaoyu Islands. In response, the JSDF and the Japan Coast Guard continuously strengthened their response to Chinese ships and aircraft. The confrontations between the maritime and air forces of the two countries  intensified, and the risk of incidents was rising. In December 2012, the Japan Coast Guard established a Diaoyu Islands Special Guard Force. In April 2016, the Japan Coast Guard established a Diaoyu Islands Special Force which included 12 large patrol vessels to deal with official Chinese ships. In June 2016, the Japanese government made it clear that Japan would resolutely prevent Chinese warships from entering the 12 nautical miles of the Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese government also called this the red line that must not be retreated.


On December 13, 2012, a Y-12 aircraft of the State Oceanic Administration of China went to the Diaoyu Islands airspace to carry out a law enforcement patrol. The JASDF immediately dispatched eight F-15 fighters and one E-2C early warning aircraft to respond. On June 9, 2016, a Chinese Navy frigate sailed into the contiguous zone of the Diaoyu Islands. The JMSDF dispatched a warship to confront the Chinese warship. In January 2018, the Japanese destroyers Ooyodo and Oonami carried out tracking and surveillance of the Chinese frigate Yiyang and a submarine near the Diaoyu Islands.


The Content and Role of the Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism


According to the Japanese Defense Ministry and Japanese media reports, the China-Japan Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism has three main contents: the establishment of direct communication procedures between the defense departments, the establishment of a hotline between the defense departments, and annual meetings. The Chief of Staff of the JSDF, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, said that it is very meaningful to start the mechanism from the perspective of avoiding unforeseen conflicts between the Chinese army and the JSDF.


First, ships and aircraft of the two countries can use the direct communication at sea and in the air. Ships and aircraft of the two countries may use specific radio frequencies, signals, and acronyms to communicate in accordance with the CUES and the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Both parties can prevent incidents and avoid tensions by affirmations of each other’s intentions. As a member of the WPNS, the Chinese Navy and the JMSDF have been implementing the CUES on a voluntary basis. This rule is an international maritime and airspace force communication and operation procedure. However, the CUES is not a binding rule. The JSDF has been complaining for long time that when tracking Chinese aircraft that have been flying in the surrounding airspace of Japan, its attempt to use CUES to call the aircraft have often ended in vain, as there is hardly any response from the latter. The current Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism should be consistent with the CUES at the technical level, but as an agreement signed by the two countries, the mechanism should be binding. The Japanese Defense Ministry also stated that the Chinese military will definitely abide by the Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism. Through communication, the JSDF will find it easier to understand the intentions of the operating forces of the Chinese army.


Second, a hotline for liaison will be established between the two defense departments this year. As the main content of the mechanism, the Chinese and Japanese defense departments set up a hotline for the first time, which is often called a direct telephone. This is the fifth defense department direct telephone line between China and foreign countries. Before that, China-Russian and China-US hotlines were established in 2008, and China-Vietnam and China-South Korean hotlines were established in 2015.


With the direct telephone line, the senior officials of the two defense departments can conduct normal communications, exchange policy intentions, and promote mutual understanding at the policy level. The direct telephone line will play an important role in crisis management. At present, the Japanese side has said that the hotline is likely to be set up in the office of the Chief of Staff of the JSDF, but the Chinese side is still uncertain.


Third, the two defense departments will hold a special meeting every year in turn, and the first meeting will be held in 2018. Similar to the China-US Maritime Military Safety Consultation Mechanism, they are also determined to hold an annual meeting each year. The topics of the annual meeting will include the proposed agenda for their maritime and air forces, such as search and rescue, communication procedures, and interpretation of rules for navigation and flight, to avoid incidents at sea, etc. In the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters between China and the US, an annual assessment meeting was held to review the application of the agreement in the previous year and to discuss possible revisions and improvements. Therefore, the possible topic of the annual meeting of the China-Japan Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism could be to conduct an annual assessment of the implementation and to propose amendments.


Insufficient and Future Development of the Mechanism


From the consultations in 2007 to the present, the mechanism that has been signed implies compromises between the two sides, constituting inherent shortcomings. First, there is a need to discuss the lack of air operation rules in the mechanism. The mechanism stipulates that the parties will regulate communication and operations between ships and aircraft in accordance with the CUES and the Convention on International Civil Aviation. The main contents of the CUES include the rules of operation, communication, and Code of Signals of the maritime forces. The CUES instruct how to establish communication, maintain a safe distance, avoid dangerous actions, and to transfer signals easily and quickly when the maritime and air forces are encountered. The Convention on International Civil Aviation was originally a regulation of civil aircraft. Military aircraft can be referenced for implementation, but the Convention cannot cover the characteristics of military aircraft. Especially in military aircraft interactions that include air reconnaissance, tracking, surveillance, and interception and expelling during peacetime, more professional rules are needed to regulate and prevent dangerous incidents. In this field, the Annex III Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air-to-Air Encounters of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters can be used as a reference and supplement to the China-Japan Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism.


Second, there is a need to discuss the scope of application of the mechanism and any hidden potential problems. According to Japanese media reports, the official documents of the mechanism did not specify whether the scope of application includes territorial sea and territorial airspace. This may be a compromise agreement between the two countries on whether the mechanism can be applied near the Diaoyu Islands. Such a vague representation method leaves room for interpretation. As the Japanese control the 12 nautical miles off the Diaoyu Islands more effectively than the Chinese, Japan hopes to take unrestrained and drastic measures to expel Chinese government ships and warships that have entered the territorial waters of the Diaoyu Islands. This is the main reason why Japan is trying to avoid the application of the mechanism within 12 nautical miles off the Diaoyu Islands. At present, the frequent confrontations between China and Japan within 12 nautical miles off the Diaoyu Islands is the objective. Under the agreement that both countries do not want to escalate the situation into armed conflict, there is still a realistic need of applying the mechanism within 12 nautical miles off the Diaoyu Islands. In the future, with the change of dominance in maritime and airspace power between China and Japan, as well as changes in the effective control of the area near the Diaoyu Islands, the interpretation of the application of the mechanism may change.


Third, there is a need to discuss the absence of applying the subject of the mechanism to the Coast Guard. At present, the confrontation near the Diaoyu Islands mainly exists between the Coast Guards of the two countries, but the mechanism has not been applied to the Coast Guard. In the future, there will be a challenge to continue ensuring that the mechanism plays a practical role in managing the dispute on the Diaoyu Islands between the two countries. In January 2018, the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party assumed command of the armed police force. Earlier in March, command authority over the China Coast Guard (CCG) was transferred from the Public Security Department to the Armed Police Force, putting the CCG under command of the CMC. This change produced another confusing issue. Are the operations of the CCG law enforcement activities or military operations? Is the mechanism applicable to the CCG? Do the two Coast Guards have equal legal status? How do the two sides avoid the difficulties of implementing the mechanism?




The establishment and active engagement of the Maritime and Airspace Liaison Mechanism between China and Japan reflects the willingness of the two countries to control differences and manage crises. For the two countries, the Diaoyu Islands sovereignty dispute and maritime delimitation disputes are difficult to solve in a short term. The most important thing at present is to maintain restraint and avoid incidents of armed conflict that will damage regional security. This is a realistic and wise choice for both countries.

Liu Xiaobo is a Research Fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.


The NISCSS is authorized to re-publish this article on its website.