China Denies Radar Lock as Japan Mulls Data Release

On January 30th, according to the Japanese government, a Chinese vessel locked weapons radar onto a Japanese destroyer 180 kilometers north of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The incident prompted angry condemnation from Tokyo, widespread concern over possible escalation, and counteraccusations that Japan was blowing the encounter out of proportion in order to vilify China. The latter intensified on Friday when China’s Defense Ministry declared that no such radar lock took place on either this or another, earlier occasion:

At around 4pm on January 19, a Chinese naval frigate, while conducting routine training in relevant waters in the East China Sea, spotted an approaching ship-borne helicopter of JSDF. The frigate kept normal observation and alert, and fire control radar was not used.

At around 9am on January 30, a Chinese naval ship found itself closely followed and monitored by JSDF destroyer Yudachi while conducting routine training in relevant waters in the East China Sea. The radars on the Chinese naval ship kept normal observation and alert, and fire control radar was not used. Therefore, the Japanese side’s remarks were against the facts, said the statement.

What needs to be pointed out is that in recent years, Japanese warships and airplanes often conduct long time and close-in monitoring and surveillance of China’s naval ships and airplanes. This is the root cause to air and maritime safety issues between China and Japan. China has lodged representations to the Japanese side on a lot of occasions, said the statement.

Shang Jun summed up Chinese reactions at Xinhua:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made another attempt on Friday to mislead the international community by demanding China apologize for the recent radar incident.

If there is an apology to be made for the latest unease in China-Japan relations, it should be from the Japanese side.

[…] By spreading false accusation and posing as a poor victim, Japan had intended to tarnish China’s image so as to gain sympathy and support, but a lie does not help.

A Chinese saying goes that “it is better for the doer to undo what he has done.” It is time for Japan to make sincere efforts to rectify its wrongdoing and mend relations with China, rather than playing petty tricks and stirring up tension.

Japan insisted that its own account was accurate, however, with the government reportedly “considering the extent of what can be disclosed” in terms of supporting evidence. From the AFP:

In reply, Kawai told the ambassador Japan expected Beijing to “sincerely fulfil its responsibility for an explanation” and take measures to prevent similar incidents, a statement said.

“We have made a cautious and elaborate analysis of this incident at the defence ministry and we have confirmed it,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said earlier.

“We told the Chinese side we cannot accept their argument and asked them for a sincere response,” he said.

Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said on Friday the public announcements had been made “after a special unit analysed data on the radar contact and confirmed it. There is no mistake about it”.

Still, one analyst found China’s denial encouraging, if not convincing. From Chris Buckley at The New York Times:

For all China’s vehemence, the statement by its Defense Ministry suggested that senior officials in Beijing wanted to avoid an escalating quarrel, said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu who researches security issues.

“I think it’s a positive development that the Chinese would deny doing this, as opposed to saying, ‘Yes we did it, and we’ll do it again,’ ” Mr. Roy said. “For the Chinese to not want to be portrayed as an aggressor, I think, is a good sign.”

Many have wondered, particularly after it emerged that Abe was not informed of the incident for almost a week, exactly who is in charge of events around the islands. The Economist considered two possible answers:

Oddly, the January 30th incident came just as tensions seemed to be easing. There was talk of a fence-mending summit between Mr Abe, who took office in December, and Xi Jinping, China’s new leader. China has been using mainly civilian agencies rather than the navy to patrol the islands. And the Chinese press has not been uniformly bellicose. In Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper whose default mode is tub-thumping nationalism, two commentators this week separately urged caution, recalling China’s history of being set back in its development by Japanese aggression—in the 1890s and again in the 1930s and 1940s.

As a result, some Japanese politicians believe the provocation must have been a low-level decision by a commander on the ship. Katsuyuki Kawai, a foreign-affairs spokesman for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, thinks the incident would have embarrassed China, since “it gives the impression that China is a rogue state”. He says that the idea that China’s forces are out of control is the Japanese government’s “biggest fear”.

The alternative, however—that this is a deliberate policy sanctioned at the highest level—may be even scarier. And a new study of China’s foreign policy by Linda Jakobson of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, argues that Chinese treatment of the islands is in fact tightly co-ordinated, with Mr Xi in direct charge as the head of a new office set up to deal with the crisis. She cites an anonymous official involved in the decision-making, who suggests that Mr Xi knows the dangers but is being given “exaggerated assessments” by underlings keen that he should take a tough stance.

From Jakobson herself at The Diplomat:

From Beijing’s perspective, the decision by the Japanese government last September to purchase the islands from their private owner signaled the nationalization of the islands, an unacceptable change in the status quo. According to my sources, a step-by-step plan was devised by the new Diaoyu task force and then approved by Xi to deal with each possible contingency. The plan’s goal is to force the Japanese government to at a minimum acknowledge that the sovereignty of the islands is disputed. Japan’s current stance is that there is no dispute – the islands belong to Japan. A change in Japan’s stance would open up the possibility for both sides to use diplomatic channels to agree that vessels of each respective nation would patrol the disputed waters on alternate days to assert sovereignty. More importantly, it could facilitate discussions on sharing fishing rights in the disputed waters. Fishermen have been at the center of several disputes which have led to an escalation of tensions between the two countries.

The chain of events since Tokyo’s purchase of the islands would appear to confirm that a plan of this nature was drawn up. Beijing began sending civilian law enforcement vessels to patrol the area around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, crossing into the 12- nautical-mile territorial zone around the islands, with the intention of “protecting” China’s sovereignty. Next, aircraft of these law enforcement agencies were sent to patrol the islands, prompting Japan to send fighter jets to intercept what Tokyo views as intruders. It wasn’t long before Chinese and Japanese jets were both engaging one another over the islands. It is not known whether the most recent action by China, the locking of radar onto a Japanese vessel, was the next step in the task force’s plan, but it seems plausible.

The episode has prompted renewed calls for emergency communication protocols between governments in the region. From Michael Martina at Reuters:

“What we need in the South China Sea is a mechanism that prevents us turning our diplomacy over to young majors and young (naval) commanders … to make decisions at sea that cause a problem (that escalates) into a military conflict that we might not be able to control,” Admiral Samuel Locklear [commander of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific] told a conference in the Indonesian capital.

[…] Locklear said governments and their leaders had to understand the potential for things to get out of hand.

“In this case, I think that point has been made pretty clear,” he said in reference to international reaction to the dispute between China and Japan.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, plans for such protocols between China and Japan ran aground on the Diaoyu issue itself:

Plans included establishing communication links between high-level officials, including those at the Cabinet level, and agreeing which language and radio frequencies to use when aircraft pilots or warship commanders need to contact those on the other side.

In June, China and Japan agreed to try to put initial measures in place by the end of 2012. But the agreement was never signed because relations soured following Tokyo’s decision in September to put in state ownership three of the Senkaku Islands, five islets held by Japan but claimed by China.

[…] A senior official at the Defense Ministry said Beijing has dodged all requests for negotiations since September. The Chinese side typically cites “scheduling complications,” the official said.

“Beijing will not respond to our calls,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official.

Even before the alleged radar incident was made public, The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman warned of the risk that a minor incident might spiral out of control: “The obvious danger” given America’s security guarantees to Japan “is that, as in 1914, a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war.” Responding at Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt argued that Rachman’s account of World War I’s origins exaggerated the danger, but raised a different fear of his own.

[… T]he key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.

The good news is that this seems most unlikely. […]

There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state’s home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other’s homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That’s the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.

At least one source of potential trouble has reportedly been eliminated. Authorities in Beijing had ‘Tokyo Big Explosion’-branded fireworks removed from store shelves ahead of the New Year celebrations. From Keiko Yoshioka at the Asahi Shimbun:

“The Chinese are on a path of peaceful development,” the official quoted authorities as saying. “The Japanese could allege otherwise if they exploit this firework.”

[…] The official said the company has no political intentions and chooses names for its fireworks purely with a view to sales.

A firework named “I Love Diaoyu” remains on sale. Other options include “Ultraman,” “Aircraft Carrier that Boosts National Prestige,” and “Beijing Style,” a play on the title of a popular South Korean music track named “Gangnam Style,” by singer Psy.

Moreover, the official said the firework was a good thing because it gave purchasers a way to express their “rational nationalism” by venting feelings “without actually setting Tokyo on fire.”