Abe Condemns China’s ‘Dangerous’ Use of Weapons-Targeting Radar
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says it is “extremely regrettable” that a Chinese warship locked its pre-firing radar on a Japanese navy boat near disputed islands last week.
Speaking to a parliamentary session Wednesday, Abe called the move “dangerous.” He said it could lead to an accidental clash, and he warned China against escalating the situation further.
“At a time when it seemed there are signs of improvement towards increasing talks between Japan and China, having this sort of one-sided provocative action taken by the Chinese is extremely regrettable,” said Abe.
Tokyo has lodged an official protest with Beijing over the January 30 incident, the latest in a series of dangerous escalations in their long-running dispute over ownership of a group of East China Sea islands.
On Tuesday, Japan’s defense ministry said it confirmed that the Chinese navy frigate aimed its weapons-targeting radar at the Japanese vessel. It also said a Japanese military helicopter was targeted with similar radar earlier last month.
Since late last year, China has regularly sent government ships to patrol the Japanese-administered islands, in what observers say is an effort to establish de facto control of the area. Both sides also have scrambled fighter jets to the islands, raising fears of an all-out military conflict.
China-Japan ties sank to their lowest level in years last September, after Tokyo purchased some of the islands from their private Japanese landowner. The move sparked days of angry protests in China. It also damaged trade ties between Asia’s two largest economies.
The situation has remained tense, with government ships from both sides regularly exchanging warnings in the disputed waters. But both sides have hinted in recent days that diplomacy, and not military conflict, is the best way to resolve the issue.
Prime Minister Abe, who is known for his hawkish and nationalistic views, last month said he would consider a summit with China to help ease tensions surrounding the island dispute. Senior Chinese officials welcomed the offer, although no meeting has been planned.
The uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and possibly by energy deposits. They have a long history of causing tensions between China and Japan.
Japan annexed the islets in the late 19th century. China claimed sovereignty over the archipelago in 1971, saying ancient maps show it has been Chinese territory for centuries.
Japan Says China Aimed Military Radar at Ship
TOKYO — Japan said Tuesday that a Chinese military vessel trained a radar used to help direct weapons last week on a Japanese naval vessel near disputed islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese Defense Ministry also said that a Chinese frigate directed the same kind of radar at one of Japan’s military helicopters in a previously undisclosed episode on Jan. 19.
In both cases, the Japanese government said, the Chinese ships eventually turned off the radar without firing, but the defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, warned that such actions increased the chances that any missteps in a dispute over the islands could veer into a larger confrontation.
The Chinese Ministry of Defense did not answer calls regarding Japan’s claims about the use of the radar, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no immediate comment.
Mr. Onodera said that in the latest episode, a Chinese Navy frigate directed its fire-control radar at a Japanese destroyer on Jan. 30 near the islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
The Defense Ministry said that the Chinese ship’s radar was turned on for “a matter of minutes” and that there was no communication between the two ships, before or after. It said the Japanese ship responded to the radar signal with “standard evasive maneuvers.”
“One step in the wrong direction could have pushed things into a dangerous situation,” Mr. Onodera told reporters about the use of the radar.
Japanese officials said the use of such radar was a threatening gesture that signified an increase in tensions, which have been growing since Japan’s government announced last year that it would buy three of the five uninhabited islands from a Japanese citizen. Japan has controlled the islands for decades. The Chinese responded to that move by sending paramilitary surveillance ships almost daily into or near Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, where they engage in cat-and-mouse maneuvers with Japanese Coast Guard ships.
On Monday, a senior Chinese military commander, Qi Jianguo, said protecting China’s “core national interest” at sea was an “unshakable mission.” He added, “No country should underestimate the staunch will of the Chinese nation to defend its national sovereignty.”
The dispute between the countries intensified in December when Chinese surveillance aircraft began flying near the islands. Tensions rose another notch last month, when Japan and China scrambled fighter jets.
The most recent reported radar action would be among the first to involve naval warships from both nations, which had until now been kept in the background to avoid a dangerous escalation. With tensions so high, military experts in Japan and the United States say their biggest fear is some accident or miscalculation resulting in an unintended exchange of fire.
The Chinese incursions are seen by Japanese political leaders and analysts as part of a new strategy to press Japan into officially acknowledging that a territorial dispute exists. They also say that by maintaining a nearly constant presence, China hopes to undermine Japan’s claims to be in sole control of the islands.
Japan has responded by stepping up its own surveillance, including keeping a small flotilla of coast guard ships near the islands, which are between Okinawa and Taiwan.
The purchase of the islands in September set off violent protests in China, where the islands are seen by many as the last pieces of Chinese territory to remain in Japanese hands from its foray into empire building. Japan says China showed interest in the islands only after undersea oil and natural gas deposits were discovered.
Japan accused China’s navy of locking weapons-guiding radar onto Japanese naval forces twice in the past three weeks, an escalation of their territorial dispute that has heightened fears of a military conflict between the Asian giants—one that could entangle the U.S.
While no shots were fired, the radar at issue often precedes an attack. The incidents Japan described followed nearly two months of increasing tussles between the two air forces, including the first-ever reported intrusion by China into airspace claimed by Japan and the scrambling of advanced fighter jets by both sides.
The radar incidents “were cases that could have led to an extremely dangerous situation with just one wrong move,” Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a news conference in Tokyo Tuesday.
Diplomats and analysts say Chinese and Japanese political leaders are all anxious to avoid even a limited military confrontation, stressing that it isn’t in the interest of Asia’s two largest economies, linked tightly by trade and investment, to engage in a military battle.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Department, Maj. Cathy Wilkinson, said Tuesday that “we have seen and are concerned by the reports of [the Chinese radar] incident” and that the U.S. has long been encouraging all parties to avoid any step that could raise the risk of a miscalculation.
The U.S., Japan’s largest military ally, is bound by six-decade-old security treaty to defend Japan from any attack. Moreover, the Obama administration has made clear it is intent on winding down the wars the U.S. is involved in, not joining new ones. Yet the U.S. also is committed to strengthening its defense ties with Japan as part of a strategic “pivot” toward Asia, which Beijing sees as a thinly veiled plot to contain China’s expanding economic and military power.
The continuing tensions put Washington in a bind. While the U.S. doesn’t want a war in Asia, it also can’t risk weakening Japan and emboldening China without undermining its entire strategy in the Pacific. How the East China Sea island dispute is managed will have an impact on whether China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea grow more pointed. That has left Washington in a position to continue pressing for more talks between China and Japan, subtly reminding Beijing that while it takes no position in territorial disputes, it recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control.
China’s foreign ministry and defense ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday evening. Japan’s foreign minister said Chinese officials responded to Tokyo’s protests by saying “that they would first like to confirm the facts.”
The increasingly testy military shadowboxing in the East China Sea between the two ancient rivals is complicated by the rise of new leaders in both countries trying to establish their security credibility, and by the shifting geopolitical dynamics of a region where China’s military and economic power has already unnerved some other countries.
The military tangles mark a turning point in the emergence of China as a major military power apparently determined to reshape the U.S.-designed security architecture that has dominated Asia since 1945. Both Japan and China are intensifying military buildups, justified in part by the need to be prepared for conflict with the other.
“The region increasingly resembles a 21st-century maritime redux of the Balkans a century ago—a tinderbox on water,” wrote former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Foreign Policy magazine last month, evoking the run-up to World War I.
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.
All sides are mindful of an incident in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet crashed after clipping the wing of a U.S. spy plane it was trying to intercept off the southern Chinese island of Hainan. U.S. officials couldn’t make contact with the Chinese military or foreign ministry for several hours after the incident, said people familiar with it.
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.
Maj. Wilkinson, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said the U.S. has long counseled against moves “that raise tensions and increase the risk of miscalculations that could undermine peace and stability in the region.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “Actions such as this escalate tensions and increase the risk of an incident or a miscalculation.”
A diplomatic thaw appeared to be emerging late last month, when a senior lawmaker from Japan’s ruling coalition visited Beijing and personally handed a letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader, raising expectations the two leaders might be open to summit talks.
At a parliamentary session on Wednesday, Mr. Abe said, “It is extremely regrettable that China took such provocative action unilaterally amid signs of emerging dialogue between Japan and China. He urged Beijing to “prevent the recurrence of such incidents and avoid escalating tensions needlessly.”
As Japan’s complaints show, there is no easy escape from the dispute over the small collection of uninhabited rocks—known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China—with both sides finding it difficult to back down or give the other a face-saving out.
“We face continued provocations against our inherent land, waters, skies and sovereignty,” Mr. Abe told Japanese troops Saturday as he surveyed a military base on Okinawa, a little under 300 miles from the area of dispute. He pledged to “confront the clear and present danger.”
Mr. Abe has long been a prominent voice in Japan for taking a tougher line against China, and he followed his landslide election in December with a pledge to build up Japan’s military, particularly in the East China Sea. Polls in Japan show both a rising dislike of China and growing popularity for Mr. Abe. Many Japanese, having watched their economy dwindle over two decades and feeling pressure from the Chinese and Korean economies, long to see a stronger nation again and are angered by China’s assertive stance in the territorial dispute.
In China, Mr. Xi is under pressure from a fiercely nationalistic Chinese public that, while increasingly critical of corruption and abuse of power, insists the party protect China’s territorial interests. Beijing blames the recent tensions on Tokyo’s decision to purchase some of the islands from their private owner in September, and it is demanding that Japan abandon its longstanding position of refusing to acknowledge the territorial dispute.
“The Japanese side should stop the illegal activity of repeatedly sending ships and aircraft into the waters and airspace of the Diaoyu islands…and work together with China to find an effective way to appropriately control and resolve this issue through dialogue and consultation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference earlier Tuesday when asked about Chinese ships operating near the islands.
Mr. Xi, who is the military chief as well as Communist Party leader, also is trying to establish credibility among Chinese commanders, many of whom believe the time has come for China to use its newly acquired firepower to assert itself in the region and beyond. Mr. Xi has taken personal charge of the territorial disputes by heading a “leading group” on maritime issues, say people familiar with the matter.
Uniformed commentators continue to shape Chinese public opinion over territorial matters, with several talking openly in recent weeks about the possibility of a war with Japan and conceivably even the U.S.
There has also been a spate of state media reports highlighting military exercises. The People’s Liberation Army Daily last week described a recent military exercise that appeared to simulate a U.S. military intervention in a conflict with China. In the exercise, Chinese air force pilots were locked in combat with an imaginary enemy when they were surprised to hear a voice speaking in English over their radio, according to the newspaper.
However, there have been calls for restraint on the Chinese side in recent days. A Chinese general believed to have close personal relations with Mr. Xi was quoted in state media Monday as urging China not to allow another war with Japan to disrupt China’s decadeslong efforts to modernize its economy and reclaim its status as Asia’s dominant power.
“The construction of our economy has now entered a key phase, and should not be interrupted by a chance occurrence,” Gen. Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, was quoted as saying in the Global Times newspaper. He added: “The United States and Japan fear that we will catch up with them, and are trying every possible way to contain China’s development, but we absolutely cannot be fooled by them.”
In the radar incidents Japan reported Tuesday, Defense Minister Onodera said Chinese frigates aimed fire-control radar at a Japanese naval destroyer on Jan. 30 and at a navy helicopter on Jan. 19. While neither incident involved firing of shots—the step that can follow use of such radar—this was “highly unusual behavior” that occurs “only in extreme situations,” he said. “We intend to push China very hard to restrain from engaging in such dangerous acts.”
Japan’s defense ministry said the radar targeting the Japanese destroyer—Japan’s 4,400-ton JS Yudachi—came from a smaller Chinese ship, a Jiangwei-II class missile frigate. The ministry said another Chinese frigate, from the Jiangkai-I class, targeted the Japanese helicopter.
Japan didn’t disclose where in the East China Sea the incidents occurred or how close they were to the disputed islands.
Ni Lexiong, a maritime and military expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, described Japan’s claims as likely exaggerated and as intended to pressure China to scale back its maritime patrols in the area.
The report of the radar incidents followed a steady stream of increasing pressure from China around the disputed islands. Chinese maritime patrol boats have routinely entered territorial waters around the islands, flashing signs such as “Leave Chinese waters” and “Follow the Chinese law.” On Jan. 8, such boats stayed in the territorial waters for 13 hours.
As Chinese maritime patrol and military surveillance planes flew into Japan’s “air defense identification zone,” Japan scrambled fighter planes against them 91 times in October through December—the most since Tokyo started disclosing such data in 2005.
Like many countries, Japan has a long-standing policy of intercepting unidentified or potentially hostile aircraft entering its air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, which extends 200 miles from its shores. But China disputes the legality of Japan’s ADIZ and the airspace Japan claims around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, a Chinese military theorist, said in a recent Chinese press report that Beijing needs to “break” Japan’s ADIZ with its own aircraft, including fighters.
“If their fighters come and our fighters don’t go out, from a diplomatic and military perspective, there is no reciprocity: It’s not good,” he said. “But if both sides bring out fighter jets, as to whether that might lead to a clash between them, that is another question.”
Japanese officials have hinted that Japanese fighters could fire tracer bullets in front of intruding aircraft, an action they haven’t taken since 1987, in response to an intruding Soviet plane. China’s military hasn’t responded officially to that suggestion. But Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences was quoted by the China News Service as saying that “firing tracer bullets is a type of provocation. It’s firing the first shot.”
The watershed moment for Japan came on Dec. 13 when Japan said a small Chinese propeller plane violated the airspace over the disputed islands. The surveillance plane, which belonged to China’s State Oceanic Administration, flew so low it escaped Japan’s land-based radar on a nearby island. Dec. 13 was the anniversary of the 1937 Nanjing massacre, the symbol of Japanese World War II era atrocities in China.
On Jan. 10, China scrambled its own military jets after Japanese fighter planes chased after a Chinese patrol flying near the disputed islands, Japan said.
Within weeks of the Dec. 13 airspace intrusion, which was the first in decades by China, Japan’s Mr. Abe unveiled his country’s first military-spending increase in 11 years. Among items in the budget was a new radar to replace dated equipment that had missed the Chinese plane.