Thursday, April 26, 2012

The dragon wants out of the bottle

The pattern of Chinese flights around the waters near Okinawa indicates greater efforts at intelligence collection 

Up until recently China remained a predominantly continental entity, with a military that reflected that historical predisposition. As China’s national power continues to grow, so have its ambitions to expand, and this means becoming a seafaring nation. This, of course, is bound to bring it in proximity to other countries in the Asia Pacific. In recent months, the tensions that inhere from this expansion have become all the more prominent, with Chinese vessels clashing with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, over which Beijing claims sovereignty in its entirety.

Earlier this year, Beijing was also turning the screw on Seoul over waters surrounding the disputed Ieo Island off South Korea. Now Japan’s Defense Ministry this week released its data on the number of times it had to scramble aircraft in response to foreign approaches to its airspace in 2011.

 In all, Air Self-Defense Force fighter aircraft were scrambled 156 times in response to Chinese aircraft approaching Japanese airspace last year, a record high for China since the Defense Ministry started releasing such data by country in 2001, Kyodo news reported on Wednesday.

Japanese military aircraft made sorties on 425 occasions as a precaution against approaching foreign aircraft in the year to March 31, the first time in 20 years that the number exceeded 400, the ministry said, adding that this was evidence, in part, of increasing military activity by China in the East China Sea. (By country, the greatest number of operations targeted Russian airplanes at 247 times, which was down 17 from the previous year.)

Japan’s SDF also said that flight patterns by Chinese aircraft had diversified, with intelligence-gathering planes (including the four-engine turboprop Y-8 maritime patrol/anti-submarine warfare aircraft, pictured above) standing out. A number of such flights occurred close to Okinawa, which serves as a major base for US forces that would likely be involved in a Taiwan contingency. As China gathers intelligence on facilities there and elsewhere, it will be in a better position, should it come to that, to target bases there preemptively — probably using MRBMs — before launching an attack against Taiwan.

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