Fri, Jan 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

China, Japan step up drone race as tension builds over islands

Each country claims drones will be used for surveillance, but experts say the likelihood of a drone skirmish between the two in coming years is ‘very high’

By Jonathan Kaiman and Justin McCurry  /  The Guardian, BEIJING and TOKYO

Drones have taken center stage in an escalating arms race between China and Japan as the two countries struggle to assert their dominance over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

China is rapidly expanding its nascent drone program, while Japan has begun preparations to purchase an advanced model from the US. Both sides claim the drones will be used for surveillance, but experts warn the possibility of future drone skirmishes in the region’s airspace is “very high.”

Tensions over the islands — called the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) by Taiwan and the Senkakus by Japan, and which are also claimed by China — have ratcheted up in past weeks. Chinese surveillance planes flew near the islands four times in the second half of last month, Chinese state media said, but were chased away each time by Japanese F-15 jets. Neither side has shown any signs of backing down. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new conservative administration in Tokyo has placed a priority on countering the perceived Chinese threat to the Senkakus since it won a landslide victory in last month’s general election. Soon after becoming prime minister, Abe ordered a review of Japan’s 2011 to 2016 mid-term defense program, apparently to speed up the acquisition of between one and three US drones.

Under Abe, a nationalist who wants a bigger international role for the armed forces, Japan is expected to increase defense spending this year for the first time in 11 years. The extra cash will be used to increase the number of military personnel and upgrade equipment. Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned the Chinese ambassador to Japan on Wednesday to discuss recent “incursions” of Chinese ships into the disputed territory.

China appears unbowed.

“Japan has continued to ignore our warnings that their vessels and aircraft have infringed our sovereignty,” top-level marine surveillance official Sun Shuxian (孫書賢) said in an interview posted on the State Oceanic Administration’s Web site, according to Reuters. “This behavior may result in the further escalation of the situation at sea and has prompted China to pay great attention and vigilance.”

China announced late last month that the People’s Liberation Army was preparing to test-fly a domestically developed drone, which analysts say is likely a clone of the US’s carrier-based X-47B.

“Key attack technologies will be tested,” the state-owned China Daily said, without disclosing further details.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defense Review, said China might be attempting to develop drones that can perform reconnaissance missions as far away as Guam, where the US is building a military presence as part of its “Asia pivot” strategy.

China unveiled eight new models in November last year at an annual air show in the southern coastal city of Zhuhai, photographs of which appeared prominently in the state-owned press. Yet the images may better indicate China’s ambitions than its abilities, Chang said.

“We’ve seen these planes on the ground only. If they work or not, that’s difficult to explain,” he said.

Japanese media reports said the defense ministry hopes to introduce Global Hawk unmanned aircraft near the disputed islands by 2015 at the earliest in an attempt to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive naval activity in the area.

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