China and Japan Trade Accusations Over Radar Lock

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has condemned a Chinese vessel’s use of targeting radar against a Japanese destroyer last week, warning that such actions risk sparking conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. From John Brinsley & Isabel Reynolds at Bloomberg:

“This was a dangerous action that could lead to unforeseen circumstances,” Abe said today in parliament in Tokyo. “At a time when there were signs that there could be talks between China and Japan, it is extremely regrettable that China should carry out such a one-sided provocation.”

[…] China’s Foreign Ministry is “not aware of this matter,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing, adding that her only knowledge of the incident came from press reports. She repeated Chinese claims of sovereignty over the islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan and the surrounding waters.

[…] The U.S. is “concerned” about the latest incident, which may escalate tensions and raises risks of an “incident or miscalculation,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press conference in Washington yesterday.

Illuminating a ship with fire-control radar is a “risky” move because it could invite retaliation, said James Hardy, a London-based Asia-Pacific editor at IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. “It might be one of these situations where an individual captain on a ship said he was going to make a name for himself or act beyond his remit,” he said, speaking from Bangalore.

This kind of radar painting is not unprecedented: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis group recalled previous incidents in 2005 and 2010. But another Bloomberg report noted that “Using fire-control radar on another vessel can be an indicator of hostile intent, depending on the circumstances, according to a manual of rules of engagement written under the direction of the U.S. Naval War College.” MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel commented on Twitter that “This is how a real crisis starts.”

The risk of inadvertent escalation from such incidents is heightened by the absence of protocols to help defuse them. From Yuka Hayashi, Jeremy Page and Julian E. Barnes, who also discussed Washington’s stake in the stand-off, at The Wall Street Journal:

Most analysts say a full-blown war is highly unlikely. But one worrisome element is a lack of direct communication channels and a code of conduct between the two nations’ militaries. When Japanese military officials want to get in touch with counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army, military attachés at the Japanese embassy in Beijing send a fax to the Chinese defense ministry, which can take days to respond.

Japanese and Chinese officials agreed last June to create emergency mechanisms to avoid accidental clashes in the East China Sea. The plan was to set up a hotline between defense leaders, to agree on a common radio frequency for vessels and aircraft to communicate in English when approaching each other, and to meet annually to discuss issues of concern. But no further talks have taken place since then.

[…] The U.S. has been pressing Japanese officials to try to get the hot-line talks moving again, figuring such agreements are key if low-level clashes are to be headed off before they become larger. “What you don’t want is midlevel officers making decisions that force leaders of countries into bad strategic options,” said a senior U.S. defense official.

But experts quoted by China Daily described the radar lock as a routine procedure, and accused Tokyo of “hyping” the incident:

Jiang Xinfeng, an expert on Japanese studies at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, said a radar’s “locking on” is a common and constant reconnaissance practice in regular missions, and the other side usually reciprocates.

“However, Japan in recent years has ramped up reconnaissance on Chinese vessels and aircraft, and Japanese media prefer playing up regular operations by the Chinese side,” Jiang said.

[…] The hawkish elite within Japan have been trying to shape public opinion and utilize public fears by hyping the “worsening security circumstances”, said Yang Bojiang, a researcher on Japanese studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

[…] “With the aid of such ‘incidents’, Tokyo is seeking to bluff the international community by depicting China as a ‘troublemaker in the region’,” Hu [Lingyuan, a professor on Japanese studies at Fudan University in Shanghai] added.

A Global Times editorial argued that the only “one-sided provocation” was coming from Japan in the public relations arena:

China is not skilled when it comes to publicity efforts, thus far it has never taken the initiative in publicizing information on Sino-Japanese disputes. The first commentaries on Sino-Japanese conflicts have been always from the Japanese side.

But if Japan was a reasonable nation, the Diaoyu Islands dispute wouldn’t have become as tense as it is now.

Now, we only have Japan’s one-sided arguments over the radar incident. Since Japan often seizes opportunities to exaggerate these kinds of incidents to sway public opinion, the legitimacy of Japan’s arguments has come under question.

[…] Japan’s attempts to highlight this radar incident only sound an alert between the Chinese and Japanese public, telling them that war is around the corner.

A Japanese-language People’s Daily Online editorial similarly warned against Tokyo’s alleged provocation, and suggested that Japan would come off worse in a conflict. From Eleanor Warnock at Japan Real Time:

Japanese media reported that the city of Ishigaki requested earlier this week that the government seek to have the islands included in a larger request to UNESCO for a world heritage listing. Ishigaki includes the disputed islands as part of its jurisdiction.

If Japan were to include the islands in the request “it is highly likely that this would form another hot coal” in the dispute, the editorial reads. It also warns of Japan’s mounting right-wing sentiment, saying that, considering its wartime past, Japan is “digging a smelly hole for to bury itself alive in.”

“If Japan is bad at remembering and there is another provocation, it’s troublesome for China, but Japan will surely feel the pain.”

See also a Caixin interview with Japanese ambassador to China Masato Kitera at The Wall Street Journal, and Pete Hunt at Foreign Policy on the battle for the Diaoyu Islands on Wikipedia:

Like the real world debate, the Wikipedia dispute is a fairly recent development. The original Senkaku Islands article, created in 2003, was relatively short at just over 300 words. This version actually listed the traditional Chinese name, “Diaoyutai,” first in the opening paragraph. By January 2010, the article had swelled to well over 4,000 words, and included 43 different footnotes. Although the article emphasized that ownership of the islands was disputed, “Senkaku” was now used on first reference, and many of the geographic citations were Japanese maps. That year, the article was subject to more than 800 separate edits. And when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese fishing boats near the islands in September, the article’s talk page exploded with activity.