Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera disclosed on Tuesday that Chinese warships in January had locked their fire-control radar on a destroyer of the Maritime Self-Defense Force and an MSDF helicopter in two separate incidents in the East China Sea.
On Thursday, Mr. Onodera told the Diet that the Chinese action could constitute “a threat of force,” which the United Nations Charter calls on U.N. member nations to refrain from in their international relations.
It is deplorable that the Chinese warships took these highly provocative and dangerous actions. Beijing should realize that such conduct could lead to an armed clash and should order the Chinese military to exercise restraint.
Japan lodged a protest with China on Tuesday and requested that it take measures to prevent a recurrence. This is a reasonable response on the part of Japan. It is imperative for Japan to act in a coolheaded manner in dealing with these incidents and make utmost efforts to diffuse tension. For its part, China should demonstrate sincerity by announcing concrete measures.
According to Defense Ministry officials, at around 10 a.m. on Jan. 30 the MSDF destroyer Yudachi detected that the Chinese frigate Jiangwei II had locked its fire-control radar on it. The two ships were only about 3 km apart.
Fire-control radar is used to aim weapons at a target and once it’s locked the weapons can be fired immediately. The radar was locked on the MSDF destroyer for several minutes. Beijing must realize that the Chinese frigate’s action was, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has noted, “dangerous conduct that could have led to an unforeseeable situation.”
On Jan. 19, the Chinese frigate Jiangkai I locked its fire-control radar on a SH-60K helicopter from the MSDF destroyer Onami, setting off the helicopter’s threat-alarm system. In both incidents, the MSDF ships exercised self-restraint strictly following the principle of defense-only defense, but clearly the crews felt a high level of tension.
According to Defense Ministry officials, following Japan’s nationalization of three islets of the Senkaku Islands in September, two Chinese frigates have been deployed in an area 110 km to 130 km north of the islands at all times and MSDF ships are observing their actions. It is imperative that MSDF ships continue to exercise self-restraint.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that she learned of the incidents through media reports. She also hinted that her ministry did not know the details of the incidents until it received the protest from the Japanese Foreign Ministry. It is not known at this moment whether the Chinese leadership, including Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, directed the Chinese Navy to lock its fire-control radar on Japan’s MSDF ships or whether the frigates initiated the actions on their own.
Either way, the action by the two Chinese frigates can be regarded as making a threat. The Chinese leadership should realize that the use of threats will not produce positive results and will only serve to fan nationalism in Japan, thus further worsening bilateral relations. It also should realize that such actions will strengthen a perception in the international community that China is a menace to regional peace and order.
Beijing should endeavor to create a peaceful environment in which China and Japan can resolve the Senkaku Islands dispute through dialogue. If China continues to adopt a threatening attitude toward Japan, Japanese public opinion of China will worsen. This in turn will reduce the ability of the Japanese government to maneuver to improve bilateral ties.
Recent signals from China are confusing. When Mr. Xi and visiting Komeito leader Mr. Natsuo Yamaguchi met in Beijing on Jan. 25, the Chinese leader said that it is important to solve the Senkaku issue through dialogue and consultations.
In a personal letter that Mr. Yamaguchi handed to Mr. Xi, Mr. Abe said that the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships. According to China’s media, the Chinese side highly praised the letter.
When former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama met with former Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan on Jan. 15 and former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama met with other Chinese officials on Jan. 29, the Chinese side stressed the importance of the relations between China and Japan. But it was during this period that the radar-lock incidents occurred.
Because China is in the midst of a leadership transition, there is a possibility that communication between the government and military is rocky. The radar-lock incidents in the East China sea show that Beijing must strengthen civilian control of the military.
After the East China Sea incidents were disclosed to the Japanese public, Mr. Abe called on China to go back to the principle of a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit.”
Mr. Abe should try to arrange a meeting with Mr. Xi to discuss this in person.
In addition, Japan and China should immediately establish a hotline between the leaders of the Self-Defense Forces and those of the Chinese military to prevent incidents from spinning out of control.