It's now been a year since Japan's previously ruling liberal government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands to prevent a nationalist and provocative Tokyo mayor from doing so himself. The move was designed to dodge a potential crisis with China, which claims "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands it calls the Diaoyus.
Disregarding the Japanese government's intent, Beijing has reacted to the "nationalization" of the islands by flooding the surrounding waters and airspace with Chinese vessels in an effort to undermine Japan's de facto administration, which has persisted since the reversion of Okinawa from American control in 1971. Chinese incursions have become so frequent that the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) are now scrambling jet fighters on a near-daily basis in response.
In the midst of this heightened tension, you could be forgiven for overlooking the news early in September that Japanese F-15s had again taken flight after Beijing graciously commemorated the one-year anniversary of Tokyo's purchase by sending an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) toward the islands. But this wasn't just another day at the office in the contested East China Sea: this was the first known case of a Chinese drone approaching the Senkakus.
Without a doubt, China's drone adventure 100-miles north of the Senkakus was significant because it aggravated already abysmal relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Japanese officials responded to the incident by suggesting that Japan might have to place government personnel on the islands, a red line for Beijing that would have been unthinkable prior to the past few years of Chinese assertiveness.
But there's a much bigger and more pernicious cycle in motion. The introduction of indigenous drones into Asia's strategic environment -- now made official by China's maiden unmanned provocation -- will bring with it additional sources of instability and escalation to the fiercely contested South and East China Seas. Even though no government in the region wants to participate in major power war, there is widespread and growing concern that military conflict could result from a minor incident that spirals out of control.
Unmanned systems could be just this trigger. They are less costly to produce and operate than their manned counterparts, meaning that we're likely to see more crowded skies and seas in the years ahead. UAVs also tend to encourage greater risk-taking, given that a pilot's life is not at risk. But being unmanned has its dangers: any number of software or communications failures could lead a mission awry. Combine all that with inexperienced operators and you have a perfect recipe for a mistake or miscalculation in an already tense strategic environment.
The underlying problem is not just the drones themselves. Asia is in the midst of transitioning to a new warfighting regime with serious escalatory potential. China's military modernization is designed to deny adversaries freedom of maneuver over, on, and under the East and South China Seas. Although China argues that its strategy is primarily defensive, the capabilities it is choosing to acquire to create a "defensive" perimeter -- long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, submarines -- are acutely offensive in nature. During a serious crisis when tensions are high, China would have powerful incentives to use these capabilities, particularly missiles, before they were targeted by the United States or another adversary. The problem is that U.S. military plans and posture have the potential to be equally escalatory, as they would reportedly aim to "blind" an adversary -- disrupting or destroying command and control nodes at the beginning of a conflict.