Photo/IllutrationJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, back right, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, second back right, watch as Japanese and Chinese defense officials sign a pact to begin operations of the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between the Japan-China defense authorities at the state guest house in Tokyo’s Moto-Akasaka district on May 9. (Pool)

A long-awaited Japan-China emergency communications system to avert accidental clashes in and near territorial waters and airspace will start from June 8, but plans for a proposed hotline between senior defense officials are still on hold.

Tokyo and Beijing have some challenging obstacles to overcome before top brass of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and Chinese military can start using the hotline, a key component of the system.

Even after leaders of the two nations agreed in principle to establish the security hotline to defuse maritime incidents in May after over a decade of talks, Chinese military aircraft continued flying over areas near Okinawa Prefecture, leading to SDF fighter jets being scrambled.

On May 9, Japan and China signed a pact to begin operations of the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between Japan-China defense authorities after a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Tokyo. The agreement has since gone through a 30-day period for both sides to get acquainted with the system.

The two countries have finally reached the point of implementing the mechanism that had been the subject of negotiations since 2007.

The system is designed to prevent possible accidents from spilling over into armed conflict and diplomatic problems.

Leaders of the two nations agreed on three issues to realize the mechanism. Firstly, to exchange messages in English over a radio with a prescribed frequency between the Chinese military and the SDF when the countries’ naval vessels or military aircraft come dangerously close to colliding. Secondly, to set up a hotline for emergency communications between Japanese and Chinese defense officials, and thirdly, to hold annual talks between top-level defense officials.

However, problems remain regarding each of the issues.

The only part of the system to come into use from June 8 is the radio communications link-up.

Whether it will function properly in areas around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea remains unclear because the two countries, in a bid to avoid conflict over the islands, agreed not to specify boundaries of where the system should be used.

In addition, the system is not legally binding, so there are no associated compliance obligations.

The hotline would enable defense officials to communicate each side’s intentions before incidents occur. Its effectiveness in reality remains unclear because it has not been decided which people on each side would be responsible for it. The agreement stated the users would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Permanent telephones have yet to be designated for the hotline, and there are currently no prospects of the two countries deciding on when to set it up.

The question over the annual meeting is whether it can promote confidence-building between the two countries and not become just a matter of routine.

Since May 11, two days after the agreement, Chinese military planes have flown in airspace between the main Okinawa island and Miyakojima island, prompting the SDF to scramble three times to intercept them.

(This article was written by Shinichi Fujiwara and Hirotaka Kojo.)