The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Game of Drones in the Pacific

China’s latest salvo in its conflict with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea has struck a nerve. Japan, which has still not officially acknowledged that a territorial dispute even exists, summoned China’s ambassador before the Japanese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday after Chinese ships sashayed into Japanese-controlled waters for 13 hours. The New York Times has the story:

[T]he incursion [occurred] on Monday by four Chinese surveillance ships near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. . . . The last such incursion by Chinese ships took place Dec. 31, Japanese news reports said; most last only a few hours.

[B]y maintaining an almost constant presence, the Chinese may also be hoping to undermine Japan’s claims of wielding sole control over the islands.

China has been taking rhetorical potshots at Japan over these islands for some time now. But the Guardian reports on a new wrinkle in the story—the use of drones:

China is rapidly expanding its nascent drone programme, 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”.

This well-rehearsed game of chest-thumping is routine by now, but with drones entering the fray, it could be only be a matter of time before warships replace the coast guard vessels and fishing boats currently acting as the primary antagonists. The danger is that step by step provocations will gradually escalate the dispute even as public opinion in both countries is roused. As the confrontation becomes more dangerous, it will be harder for both sides to disengage.

Published on January 10, 2013 9:00 am