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Japan-China Crisis Communications Are Improving but Face Challenges

The urgent need for improved crisis communications mechanisms between China and Japan has been driven home by a number of incidents between the two countries. For example, in January 2013 a Chinese navy vessel directed a fire-control radar at a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer. A little over a year later, in May and June 2014, two Chinese military fighter aircraft flew unusually close to Japanese military aircraft. These incidents could have led to a much wider conflagration, particularly in the absence of a crisis communications mechanism.

So, the recently established hotline between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities — which creates a direct channel between the two countries’ defense ministers — and the broader bilateral communication mechanism it is a part of should be welcomed as significant progress toward improved crisis communications between the two countries, whose disputes in the East China Sea create the potential for confrontation and escalation. However, it is not clear that this mechanism has eliminated the risks it was negotiated to address, including to prevent accidental collisions and to prevent unforeseen events from developing into military clashes or political or diplomatic issues.

Overview of Progress

The hotline is part of the Japan-China Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism (MACM), which dates back to April 2007 when then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese State Council Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to develop a communication mechanism among defense authorities to prevent unforeseen incidents at sea. Subsequently, consultations were held at the administrative level, and a general framework was agreed upon in June 2012. However, talks were suspended after the Japanese government nationalized the Senkaku Islands in September of the same year.

Talks resumed in January 2015, and after several rounds Abe hosted a summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, signing various documents and memoranda on a wide range of areas, one of which was the MACM, which became operational on June 8, 2015.

The MACM seeks to promote mutual understanding and confidence between Japan and China, enhance bilateral defense cooperation, avoid unexpected collisions and prevent unforeseen circumstances in the sea and air from developing into military clashes or political or diplomatic issues. The mechanism’s main components include regular meetings between the two countries’ defense authorities, a hotline between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities, and on-scene communication measures between vessels and aircraft of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

After the operationalization of this mechanism, meetings between the two countries’ defense authorities were held. The hotline was installed in March 2023 and in May 2023 the first call was conducted between the countries’ defense ministers, thereby commencing its operations. Regarding communication between SDF and PLA vessels and aircraft, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a specific code for avoiding unexplained collision, and an additional annex to that code stipulating rules of behavior to avert air encounters, were agreed as multilateral initiatives in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Although these initiatives are multilateral in nature, they are also being utilized within the MACM.

Currently, Japan-China Defense Ministerial Meetings and other consultations between the two countries’ defense officials have been implemented regularly, even during the COVID-19 pandemic using videoconference. However, exchanges between military personnel and units have been suspended since 2019.

Challenges Facing the Mechanism

The original objectives of this mechanism were to avoid unexpected collision and to prevent unforeseen circumstances in the sea and air from developing into military clashes or political or diplomatic issues. But the MACM’s uses may not be limited to the “maritime and aerial” domains described in the mechanism’s formal title. For example, the MACM could be used to enhance defense cooperation and exchanges between high-level officials. The Japan’s 2023 defense white paper suggests as much, stating “Japan will also make use of the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between the Defense Authorities of Japan-China, including the hotline, in order to avoid unexpected contingencies between the two countries.”

Based on the above, if we analyze the current status of this mechanism, we can identify the following challenges.

1. The hotline between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities is not between uniformed military personnel.

Japan’s defense minister is a politician, while China’s is a member of the military. Taking into consideration the fact that urgent communication is necessary when the unexpected occurs at sea or in the air, a hotline between military personnel with a strong grasp of the military situation on the front line is desirable. Considering the optimal positions in Japan and China and the fact the PLA has adopted a force user system based on theater commands that integrates the branches of the military — rather than a different force user system for each branch of the military — a hotline between the countries’ respective top-ranked military officers is the most realistic option.

2. Exchanges between uniformed military personnel have not evolved.

In 2019, exchanges between military personnel included the attendance of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense chief of staff at the fleet review for the PLA Navy’s 70th anniversary, exchanges in conjunction with a visit to Japan by PLA Navy vessels, and a visit to China’s Eastern Theater Command and other places in China by a SDF delegation. However, four years have passed since then and the senior officers of both the Chinese and Japanese militaries have changed. So, confidence-building and communication could be challenging. Fortunately, the 2023 resumption of the Japan-China Field Officer Exchange Program, a track 1.5 exchange planned by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, will be a precursor for the resumption of exchanges.

3. Exchanges between military units have not evolved.

Exchanges between military units have not been implemented since the visit to Japan of Chinese naval vessels in 2019. If we look back at the exchanges between military units to date, there have been two visits to China by Japanese SDF vessels and three visits to Japan by Chinese naval vessels. China did cancel one planned visit of Japanese training ships over a decade ago, due to a 2010 incident in which a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese patrol boats. The major advantage of exchanges between military units is that exchanges among many military personnel are possible. Exchanges using training ships between officer candidates who bear responsibility for the future of the military units of Japan and China greatly contribute to preventing military clashes due to future unforeseen circumstances. So, expectations are growing regarding their implementation going forward.

4. Drills between military units using CUES have not been implemented

If the front-line personnel of both Japan and China do not know the actual procedures in the case that unforeseen circumstances occur at sea or in the air, then it could lead to military clashes or political or diplomatic issues. The implementation of specific drills between the Japanese and Chinese units using CUES or a table-top exercise in which Japan and China participate is necessary in order to prevent this.


For the MACM to function effectively, both the policy side and front-line personnel — Japanese and Chinese policymakers and government organs and naval vessels and aircraft on the front line — should have the awareness and knowledge necessary to prevent unforeseen circumstances from developing into military clashes or political or diplomatic issue. Thus, it is most important for both Japan and China to aim for better communication between the policy side and front-line personnel, and then to use exchanges between uniformed military personnel and exchanges and drills on the front line to urgently update procedures and perceptions between Japan and China before unforeseen circumstances lead to conflict.

Source : USIP