Cover: China's Military Activities in the East China Sea

China's Military Activities in the East China Sea

Implications for Japan's Air Self-Defense Force

Published Dec 3, 2018

by Edmund J. Burke, Timothy R. Heath, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Logan Ma, Lyle J. Morris, Michael S. Chase


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Research Questions

  1. What are the origins of the intensifying rivalry between China and Japan, the two traditional great powers of Asia?
  2. How has this rivalry exacerbated deepening perceptions of threat on both sides?
  3. How has Japan responded to the increasingly intrusive presence of Chinese aircraft near Japan?
  4. What are the long-term implications of China's increased surface and air presence near Japan?

A long-standing rivalry between China and Japan has intensified in recent years, owing in part to growing parity between the two Asian great powers. Although the competition involves many issues and spans political, economic, and security domains, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands remains a focal point. The authors examine how China has stepped up its surface and air activities near Japan, in particular near the Senkaku Islands. They survey the patterns in Chinese vessel and air activity and consider Japan's responses to date. The authors conclude that resource constraints and limited inventories of fighter aircraft pose formidable obstacles to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force's ability to match Chinese air activity. Given China's quantitative advantage in fighter aircraft, Japan's current approach may not be sustainable. The authors offer recommendations for the United States and Japan to manage emerging challenges.

Key Findings

China and Japan have experienced a dramatic increase in nonlethal encounters between military aircraft near Japan

  • Chinese military aircraft have flown with increasing frequency near the Senkaku Islands and the Miyako Strait, which Chinese strategists regard as a critical passageway through the first island chain.
  • The higher rate of activity has spurred Japan to adjust deployments and increase its acquisitions to keep pace with the growing Chinese presence and defend what Japan views as its airspace.

Military improvements are Japan's most significant effort to push back on China's increased air activities

  • The Japanese government has prioritized a defense posture more focused on the region and the procurement of assets meant to strengthen the capabilities of the Japanese Self-Defense Force in island defense.
  • It has also increased the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) budget and established a JCG patrol unit tasked specifically with patrolling the Senkaku Islands.

The stress of constantly responding to the Chinese air activities has added pressure to an already overstretched Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF)

  • The increased operational tempo exacerbates maintenance issues, as the frequency with which aircraft require inspections and maintenance is increasing.
  • Although the real-world experience that JASDF pilots are gaining is useful, the increased incursions into Japanese airspace are also negatively impacting pilot training, as pilots are unable to devote this time to the study of other missions.


  • U.S. and Japanese officials should exchange views on ways that Japan could respond quickly and effectively to any surge scenarios involving sudden, large numbers of Chinese military aircraft flight operations near Japan.
  • The allies should include the issue of Japanese reprioritization of assets to the southwestern region in their discussions of U.S. force realignment.
  • U.S. officials can share experiences of how scrambling protocols evolved during the Cold War to meet the changing situation.
  • The United States should work with Japan to train in how to rely on existing and planned ground-based air defenses as a suitable and appropriate counter to some Chinese air incursions.
  • Japan might also want to consider cross-domain and bilateral responses with other nations in its efforts to counter Chinese intransigence.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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