Recently, a Japanese surveillance plane was tailed at close proximity as it flew within the overlapping area of Japan and China's Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ)*.
The Japanese media is very keen to point out the more ominous points of this encounter: Namely, the exceptionally close proximity of the Chinese fighter aircraft (approximately 30 m), the lack of radio communication (despite supposedly having been hailed by the Japanese pilots), and the interpretation of these events as the implementation of China's recent expansion of its ADIZ. These reports are often mentioned in the same breath as the expansion of China's influence in the South China Sea, and paint China much like a dangerous animal that needs to be contained..
Listening a little closer reveals that the Chinese and Russian forces were doing military drills in the area, and China has painted the issue as a kind of invasion of military privacy. This made me laugh at first: So far as I can tell, the Chinese and Russians had every right to do
their drills there (I believe it was international waters.. My world
politics isn't great), but given the Chinese ADIZ was only extended in the last year, it seems pretty hypocritical to complain of Japanese surveillance planes peeking at your naval tactics when you are conducting drills near/inside the Japanese ADIZ.
The next little tidbit, that I've yet to hear mentioned in the Japanese news**, is the fact that the Japanese unilaterally expanded their ADIZ in 2010, to encompass Yonaguni island. To be fair, Yonaguni is inhabited by Japanese citizens, whereas the Chinese expansion does not increase the Chinese ADIZ area to encompass any of its inhabited islands, so far as I'm aware. But it does include the Senkaku islands, which it does claim. Additionally the Japanese expansion of the ADIZ caused the Japanese ADIZ to overlap the Taiwanese ADIZ, apparently causing some upset (see above link).
So where does distilling the whole ADIZ business leave us? Both countries have expanded their ADIZ unilaterally in the past 5 years; however, the ADIZ is basically just a courtesy, like "knock before entering", except rather than being the door to your room, its a door at the end of a long hallway (an ADIZ generally expands well beyond the territorial waters). The problem is that neither country is really obliged to recognise the creation of an ADIZ. Generally its a good idea, because it minimises the chance of getting yourself shot down just for doing surveillance***, but an ADIZ doesn't appear to actually have any basis in international law.
My interpretation is that the Japanese forces were effectively just being rude, by failing to knock on the door. I'd go as far as to say they may as well be rude, given the fact the ADIZ was unilaterally constructed by the Chinese government; however, I think the Chinese response (to scramble fighters) is fair enough, in fact it is standard procedure for encroachment of an ADIZ (they need to make an identification of the "invading" aircraft). The fact these fighters flew within 30-50 m (and out of view) of the Japanese plane can be seen as the Chinese forces being proportionately rude in reaction.
Of course, the fact the incident occurred where the Chinese and Japanese ADIZ overlaps left plenty of room for escalation, but we didn't see that, and I don't think we will. The main escalation was done (as ever) by the media. Exactly what could have been expected to happen happened: an ADIZ was trespassed*4*, and a response was incurred.
The fact that China has been expanding its influence is relevant, but given no blows have been exchanged, and the relative balance of power between China and Japan isn't changed by the incident, this remains, as is so often the case between these two countries, another petty exchange.
What I will say is this kind of thing is awfully convenient for Shinzo Abe's designs for reinterpretation of Japanese Constitution, and I wonder whether the Japanese media's reaction is influenced by this. After all, on the scale of international incidents, this is practically a non-event: the UK does this all the time *5*, and I didn't hear about it until it hit the news following the whole Russia-Ukraine thing...
*An ADIZ is just an area in which a country claims any aircraft that enter must submit their flight plans to the claimant country.
** Though, given my inexperience, I'll be lucky to catch it, even if it is mentioned..
*** No idea if that ever happened..
*4* There must be a better term, seeing as a crime wasn't committed..
*5* Dear Russia, if you're listening, you make beautiful aircraft, but do you really need to do flybys of the North Sea in tactical nuclear bombers? I don't doubt pilots get pretty bored without a few hours in the sky, but you have the whole of Russia to practice in! In any case, you'll make our Tornado pilots jealous..