Chinese maritime surveillance vessels made apparent preparations last year to deploy helicopters inside Japanese territorial waters, which would have directly challenged Japanese sovereignty and put Tokyo in a bind as to how to respond, sources, including former Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, said.
Convention holds that foreign governments are in some circumstances free to send vessels into another nation's waters, but that an incursion of airspace is an immediate, unambiguous and potentially serious violation of statehood.
In the incidents described, no helicopters took off. But Morimoto said he saw them as part of a calculated ratcheting up of tensions by China in waters adjacent to the disputed Senkaku Islands.
The recent targeting of a Japanese destroyer by a Chinese frigate with weapons-guiding radar is a similar stepping up of provocations that would fit Morimoto's assessment.
The Senkakus, five uninhabited islets and reefs in the East China Sea, are administered by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
Morimoto served as defense minister from June through December 2012 under the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan.
A government source said a helicopter taking off inside Japanese airspace is a troubling scenario because it is a way China can violate Japanese sovereignty with little fear of reprisal. Japan has no effective means of preventing a helicopter from taking off from the deck of a ship.
In December, Morimoto said, observers saw a helicopter hangar aboard a Chinese patrol ship open up. Tensions rose, but no chopper emerged.
Another government source said a similar incident took place in September.
The Japanese government considered ways to address this scenario in 2010. A third government source said one participant in those discussions proposed a response involving helicopters scrambled from Japan Coast Guard cutters.
The participant reportedly said Japan had few other options. Self-Defense Forces fighter jets are unsuitable for intercepting low-speed helicopters, whereas dispatching Maritime SDF destroyers could provoke China.
One problem with the plan, however, is that the Japan Coast Guard conducts no drills for scrambling helicopters, the source said. Another worry is that, unlike fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters cannot fly close together safely.
Looking ahead, Morimoto said he expects China to engage in further provocations, and that along the way it will measure Tokyo's response.
"It is conceivable that it may even try to ram Japan Coast Guard cutters and arrest Japanese crew members," he said.
Morimoto added that Japan needs to step up patrols and surveillance. It must also, he said, ensure that the Japan-U.S. alliance is fully functional. And Japan's overall course of action, he said, must not be one that gives Beijing a chance to accuse Tokyo of metaphorically firing the first shot.
"I am worried that China will keep prodding Japan in the hopes of getting a rise from the Abe administration," Morimoto said, referring to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's reputation for hawkish instincts.
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