Friday, February 08, 2013

What’s with the Chinese Fire-Control Radars?

The Japanese government is claiming that a PLA Navy frigate locked fire-control radar on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer in a dramatic escalation of tensions just as attempts appeared to be under way to reach a more serviceable equilibrium in the bilateral relationship. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on so that I can make an educated guess at what’s going to happen next. At this point, I only have suspicions, at best. (And they have shifted as more information is revealed.) Specifically, I suspect that the PLA Navy’s leadership knew of the incidents but am more confident that the rest of the Chinese party and government leadership including those of other three military forces learned of them only after the Japanese defense minister revealed the incidents to the Japanese media. I suspect that the Chinese leadership is buying time to form a definitive response, which I am confident will include an implicit cession of such actions but not an admission of the alleged actions themselves. As a result, barring another unforeseen major incident, the uneasy maintenance of the security and diplomatic status quo will continue until there is a gradual thawing of the government-to-government relationship. Any major improvement will only happen after the incoming Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang administration has consolidated its hold over the political and military realm, which for the outgoing Hu-Wen administration took at least a couple of years and perhaps never was completely consummated.

I’ll be more than happy to elaborate on my reasoning for these not-quite conclusions if there’s any interest from a public forum. In the meantime, the following is a summary of the known facts (including allegations of fact) as they have unfolded. I have not provided any links to the media reports as they are too numerous to pick and choose from except for a handful that I felt necessary to the integrity of the summary in one way of another.

January 25: Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of junior coalition partner Komeito, delivers a letter from Prime Minister Abe to Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, who said, “China and Japan are important neighbors to each other, and bilateral cooperation in various fields has reached an unprecedented level in terms of both depth and breadth since the normalization of diplomatic relations 40 years ago, giving a strong impetus to the development of the two countries. The Chinese government attaches importance to developing relations with Japan and such a policy remains unchanged”, according to the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs.*
January 31: Three Chinese maritime surveillance vessels enter and leave the Senkaku territorial waters.
February 4: Two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels enter the Senkaku territorial waters between 9:23-9:24 and leave between 23:31-23:40, the longest such sojourn ever.
February 6: The Japanese Defense Minister reveals that a PLA Navy vessel (most likely a frigate) locked fire-control radar on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer on January 30, and had done so on a JMSDF helicopter on the 19th.** The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman says that the ministry has not been informed by the defense ministry.***
February 7: The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman states that “Japan is doing things that fan the flames of the crisis, generate tension, and smear the image of China with mud, which runs contrary to efforts to improve the relationship” and that “the relevant department (ed. presumably the Ministry of Defense) is currently undertaking a rigorous investigation and the confirmation of the facts with regard to the related media reports” and tells the reporters to “please inquire with the department in charge.” Hong Kong-based TV News Ifeng reports that the defense ministry spokesperson issued a denial.****

A few additional comments. According to experts, the radar incidents are a quantum leap in aggression since the Japanese side could justifiably open fire in self-defense.***** (To be clear, the Japanese destroyer prudently engaged in evasive maneuvers until the Chinese frigate disengaged its radar.) Speculation has centered on the authorization (or lack thereof) for the radar engagement. Did the CPC Standing Committee of the Politburo give the go-ahead, or were they rogue acts of a gung-ho captain? Or something in between, such as a PLA bid for more influence and appropriations under the incoming administration, or inter-force rivalry for the same? Remember, the Chinese authorities are a notoriously freebooting bunch for (because they are?) an authoritarian regime—see Bo Xilai.

* The full text of the FMPRC announcement including the PRC take on the rest of Xi’s comments can be found here. Asahi puts a positive spin in its headline with “Xi seriously considers first summit meeting with Abe” while BBC goes with the more prosaic “Japan envoy meets Chinese leader amid islands dispute”. It would be fun to go through the ideological spectrum of the mainstream media on this issue, on this one event, to see how their perspectives color their headlines and, presumably, the hearts and minds of their readers.
** The Japanese defense minister only learned of the second incident on February 5, six days after the January 30 incident. It is unclear from media reports so far when he learned of the January 19 incident. Still, nothing has been emanating from the DPJ except some criticism from Kazuhiro Haraguchi laid against Prime Minister Abe during the February 7 House of Representatives Budget Committee questions. Meanwhile, the DPJ has had to vigorously deny a February 7 Nikkei report that there had been another, similar incident during the Noda administration that then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada decided to keep under wraps for fear of worsening the Japan-China relations. Nikkei stood by its sources.
*** Next day (Feb. 7), most of the “Press and Media Services” pages on the Chinese foreign ministry website said “Sorry, the page you requested cannot be found” at 12:30. They were back to normal by no later than 20:30, likely earlier. However, the foreign ministry spokeswoman’s February 6 press conference records did not include the denial of knowledge.
**** Or so Mainichi reports and appears to be correct as far as I can make out the Chinese headlines. I’m including the link here for the benefit of anyone who can actually watch the video and understand what the announcer is saying.
***** Such incidents were reportedly common during the Cold War and the US and USSR worked out rules of engagement to prevent such incidents from escalating into actual clashes.

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