Tokyo and Beijing have agreed to set up a military hotline, according to Japanese officials, creating an emergency communication mechanism to defuse potential crises over disputed islands and the Taiwan Strait.
The Japanese defence ministry said the governments agreed to set up the link by the end of 2022 during a two-hour phone call on Monday between Nobuo Kishi, defence minister, and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe.
The ministers agreed on the “timely establishment” of a hotline between the two militaries, the Japanese defence ministry said, in order to improve the effectiveness of the maritime and aerial communication mechanism, a system established in 2018 to avert unintended clashes.
The Chinese defence ministry did not directly mention a hotline, but said there was a need for strengthening liaison and communication between the defence ministries.
They should “strengthen high-level exchanges and practical co-operation, further expand the content of the sea and air liaison mechanism, jointly control risks, prevent the escalation of conflicts and continuously improve the level of defence co-operation,” Wei said, according to the Chinese defence ministry.
Kishi has intensified Japan’s focus on the potential risks around Taiwan during his tenure, telling the Financial Times this year that broad international pressure was crucial to prevent Taipei’s future from being decided by military confrontation. A recent defence white paper called for Taiwan’s security to be viewed with an increased “sense of crisis”.
Kishi expressed “grave concerns” on the call about any attempts by China to change the status quo through coercion, Japan’s defence ministry said, adding that he told Wei that peace across the Taiwan Strait was critical to Japan’s security and to the stability of the international community.
People close to the discussions cautioned that the latest sign of an agreement may not represent a significant breakthrough.
China has a military hotline for crises with the US, but Washington complained this year that calls often went unanswered. According to US experts, crisis communication channels have broken down in the past during critical situations, such as the April 2001 collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a US spyplane off the southern Chinese island of Hainan.
A military hotline between China and Japan has been under discussion for more than a decade. The sides agreed in 2007 to set one up but failed to finalise details.
One person briefed on the talks between Kishi and Wei said a phone call between China’s president Xi Jinping and Fumio Kishida shortly after the Japanese prime minister assumed office in October marked a shortlived thaw in relations.
Xi said the rivals should pursue “constructive and stable” relations ahead of next year’s 50th anniversary of their re-establishment of diplomatic ties in 1972.
But regular Chinese incursions around the Senkaku Islands — which are known in China as the Diaoyu and are claimed by Beijing — have continued.
The Chinese government was angered by Kishida’s criticism of the forays and Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang at a regional summit in late October. “Even though there is a window of opportunity to improve relations, the foundation of the relationship is still very fragile,” the person said.
Experts have warned that the rapidly expanding activity by the Chinese military, coast guard and maritime militia ships — fishing boats that work with the military — around the Senkaku Islands raised the risk of an accident or open conflict.
Additional reporting by Eri Sugiura in Tokyo