Chinese surveillance vessels have made repeated intrusions into Japanese waters since the government in Tokyo in effect nationalized three of the Diaoyutais in the summer, sparking riots in Chinese cities and damaging trade ties between Asia’s two biggest economies.
The need for Japan to improve its surveillance capability was underlined late last year when Japanese radar failed to pick up a low-flying Chinese aircraft as it flew over the islands.
The Kyodo news agency quoted an unnamed Japanese defense ministry official as saying that the drones would be used “to counter China’s growing assertiveness at sea, especially when it comes to the Senkaku islands.”
China’s defense budget has exploded over the past decade, from about ￡12.4 billion (US$19.9 billion) in 2002 to almost ￡75 billion in 2011, and its military spending could surpass that of the US by 2035. The country’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet model called the Liaoning, completed its first sea trials in August last year.
A report last year by the Pentagon acknowledged long-standing rumors that China was developing a new generation of stealth drones, called Anjian, or Dark Sword, whose capabilities could surpass those of the US’ fleet.
China’s state media reported in October last year that the country would build 11 drone bases along the coastline by 2015.
“Over disputed islands, such as the Diaoyu Islands, we do not lag behind in terms of the number of patrol vessels or the frequency of patrolling,” said Senior Colonel Du Wenlong (杜文龍), according to China Radio International. “The problem lies in our surveillance capabilities.”
China’s military is notoriously opaque, and analysts’ understanding of its drone program is limited.
“They certainly get a lot of mileage out of the fact that nobody knows what the hell they’re up to, and they’d take great care to protect that image,” said Ron Huisken, an expert on east Asian security at Australian National University.
He said the likelihood of a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese drones in coming years was “very high.”
US drones have also attracted the interest of the South Korean government as it seeks to beef up its ability to monitor North Korea after last month’s successful launch of a rocket that many believe was a cover for a ballistic missile test.
The US’ Global Hawk is piloted remotely by a crew of three and can fly continuously for up to 30 hours at a maximum height of about 18.3km. It has no attack capability.
The US deployed the advanced reconnaissance drone to monitor damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami on Japan’s northeast coast.