China, US forces ‘need operational guidelines’

December 19, 2013 - 8:32:13 am

A carrier-borne J-15 fighter jet takes off from the China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning. 

HONG KONG:  A lack of detailed operational guidelines between the Chinese military and the United States and its allies is heightening fears that a miscalculation or mishap across Asia’s crowded seas and skies could get out of control.

When a US guided missile cruiser shadowing China’s only aircraft carrier in the South China Sea earlier this month was forced to change course to avoid hitting a smaller Chinese warship, it was seen as the latest sign of how dangerously closely the two navies now operate. 

Further north, China’s new air defence identification zone over the East China Sea includes the skies above tiny islands administered by Japan that Beijing also claims. 

Airborne surveillance and fighter patrols from the United States and its Japanese and South Korean allies are expected to increase to counter any Chinese measures to police the zone, experts said. 

“The chance of error is high,” said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on Chinese security at the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If things continue along their present path, you do have to wonder what the consequences will be. There should be an understanding on what constitutes a safe intercept, and there should be reliable communication channels between air forces.”

The United States and China probably had the ability to stop an accident between their forces from escalating, Glaser said, but a mishap between China and Japan could be hard to contain given nationalistic and domestic political pressures. 

While some routine operational communication has increased   particularly at sea, US and Japanese naval officials and diplomats often voice frustration at what they see as China’s slow progress in adopting the sort of detailed operational rules that kept the peace with then Soviet forces at sea and in the air during the Cold War.

Those arrangements allowed for extensive monitoring and shadowing of rival militaries outside of territorial waters and airspace, with clear understandings that dangerous manoeuvres must be avoided at sea and in the air. 

Japan and China agreed in 2011 to hold discussions on setting up a defence hotline for maritime and air emergencies. 

But talks stalled after the Japanese government in 2012 bought the islands at the heart of its territorial row with Beijing from a private landowner to fend off a potentially more inflammatory purchase by the Tokyo metropolitan government, at the time headed by a nationalist governor.

While the 1972 US-Soviet agreement has been used widely by Moscow since, China wants different guidelines with Washington, military officials said.   Reuters

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