On 11 January, China's defence ministry confirmed that Chengdu J-10 fighters had been dispatched to keep an eye on two Boeing F-15 aircraft operated by Japan. According to its statement, the F-15s were trailing a Shaanxi Y-8 patrolling near a cluster of islands in the East China Sea that are contested by Beijing and Tokyo.

Irrespective of the merits of either party's claim to these islands, neither side appears willing to back down. Although the prospect of an all-out war over what Tokyo calls the Senkaku and Beijing the Diaoyu islands is remote, any conflict that may develop would involve air combat - possibly on a large scale. This would lead to Japan's historically strong air force being challenged by an ambitious newcomer.

 J-11 - Rex Features

Rex Features

In recent years China's air force has made significant strides. It now operates almost 500 advanced fighters, including about 200 single-engined J-10s and more than 270 Shenyang J-11s and Sukhoi Su-27s (above). It also operates several hundred more examples of older types, including nearly 400 J-7s: a license-built version of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21. Unsourced media reports have speculated that some J-7s can be controlled remotely, effectively transforming them into cruise missiles.

While the Japan Air Self-Defence Force boasts fewer aircraft, it operates 153 F-15J fighters (below), 63 Mitsubishi F-2As, and over 80 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms.

 F-15J - Commonwealth of Australia

Commonwealth of Australia

Despite China's apparent numerical equality, experts feel it is in no position to impose and maintain aerial superiority - let alone aerial supremacy - over the disputed area.

"In short, Japan has a significant edge," says Oriana Mastro, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. "But the Chinese can create challenges for Japan to maintain aerial superiority."

One challenge facing Japan, she feels, is its ability to provide constant surveillance of the disputed islands. As Chinese naval and aircraft activities become more routine, it will become harder for Tokyo to determine Beijing's intentions.

 KJ200 AEW - Rex Features

Rex Features

Beijing's Y-8-based KJ200 surveillance aircraft are largely untested

Indeed, Tokyo has identified persistent surveillance as a priority area. "The current mid-term defence programme [from March 2011 to March 2015] takes drones into consideration as part of the study on warning and surveillance posture around our country," Japan's defence ministry said in an email to Flightglobal.

"We will further study the efficiency and operational role of drones, the comparison of the cost-effectiveness with existing equipment [and] offsettability, and take into account technological trends."

Although Tokyo declines to mention specific programmes, unsourced media reports have suggested that it is interested in the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N Broad Area Maritime Surveillance variant of the Global Hawk, being developed for the US Navy.

Another regional defence expert feels that Beijing would be at a significant disadvantage in any shooting war over the islands.

 H-6 bomber - Rex Features

Rex Features

China has adapted some of its aged H-6 bombers to act as tankers

"They can fly a few J-10s out and perhaps fly alongside Japanese F-15s, but could they sustainably project power that far out from the mainland over an extended period?" he asks. "China only has limited experience using its [Xian] H-6 as tankers." Tokyo, by contrast, can call on a four-strong fleet of Boeing KC-767s.

Another area where Beijing is weak is in airborne early warning and control (AEW&C). Its new force of Y-8-based KJ-200 and adapted Ilyushin Il-76 KJ-2000 platforms are untested, while Japan has four recently upgraded E-767 AEW&C aircraft (below) and 13 Northrop E-2C Hawkeyes.

 767 AEW Japan - USAF

US Air Force

"In a conflict Japan would have far better situational awareness," the source says. "Also, Japanese pilots are able to operate autonomously of ground control, but Chinese fighters would likely operate under GCI [ground controlled interception]."

Mastro feels that the current tensions will not greatly change long-term procurement trends, with both China and Japan to continue to build their air power capabilities. The key is for the USA and its Pacific ally to make the right procurement choices now, she says, so as to offer a capable deterrent to China 20 years from now.

"The trajectory is what concerns the USA," Mastro says. "China can create challenges without catching up, and they don't need to catch up to achieve political victories. With air power tipping in China's favour, [Beijing] may be more inclined to use force."

Source: Flight International