The opening of a dedicated hotline between senior officials of the SDF and the Chinese military to avoid accidental clashes is expected to be postponed further this year. Since the two countries agreed to establish a hotline in May 2018, the authorities of the two countries have been working on technical details to set up a hotline, but the impact of COVID-19 has prevented them from visiting each other, delaying the realization of this channel of communication.
Japan and China will soon hold a meeting of the “Japan-China high-level consultation on maritime affairs” to discuss maritime concerns and cooperation. As for the hotline, however, the two countries are expected to agree only to accelerate their coordination.
The Japanese and Chinese governments agreed to establish a “maritime and air liaison mechanism” at a summit meeting in May 2018 after about a decade of intermittent talks. The operation of the mechanism started in June 2018.
The mechanism is a framework for avoiding accidental clashes on the ocean and in airspace, and the hotline is an important pillar of the framework. The other pillar is the annual meeting between defense authorities, who have now met three times. But a hotline has not been realized even three and a half years after the agreement.
“Political circumstances [between the two countries] are not a factor,” said a source connected with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, referring to reasons for the delay. “A hotline is necessary because of the tensions between the two countries, and the Chinese government also understands the necessity.”
On the other hand, a source connected with the Ministry of Defense said, “As a hotline requires a physical line to be installed, we need to verify whether the necessary equipment can be connected properly, but COVID-19 prevents people from coming and going and the necessary work from proceeding.” The two countries have not even agreed on the level of senior officials who will be connected by a hotline.
Japan hopes to resolve these issues and set up the hotline by the end of 2022. However, progress in Japan-China relations has stalled due to the provocative moves of the Chinese military around the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture) and human rights issues. There remain many issues that need to be resolved before realizing the operation of a hotline, including the technical verification of the hotline connection and handling of confidential information.