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

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.