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Beijing’s Test of Tokyo

by Sheila A. Smith
December 13, 2012

An airplane belonging China's state oceanic administration flies past south of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea An airplane belonging China's state oceanic administration flies past south of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea December 13, 2012 (11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, Japan Coast Guard/Courtesy Reuters).

Early this morning, East China Sea time, China sent a small reconnaissance plane into Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands. Too small to register on Japan’s air defense radar, but large enough to make a point, this propeller jet assigned to the Chinese Marine Surveillance Agency was perfectly timed to take advantage of the distraction of North Korea’s missile launch.

China and Japan have been drawing lines in the waters around the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands for the Chinese) almost daily since the Japanese government under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda purchased these islands from a private owner on September 11. China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, has consistently argued that Japan escalated the bilateral dispute over these small uninhabited islands by “nationalizing” them. China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi took his case to the United Nations, where he derided the Japanese government for challenging the post-WWII settlement in Asia.

Beyond this rhetorical onslaught, however, seems to be a more calculated tactical test of Tokyo by Beijing. Since Noda’s decision, China’s Marine Surveillance Agency ships as well as Fisheries Agency patrols have made visits to the Senkaku Islands a daily occurrence. Soon after the Japanese announcement of purchase, some of these vessels traversed territorial waters in a show of bravado. Since then, these ships have more often than not passed through the contiguous waters, a demonstration of China’s ability to deploy in waters around the islands but not as direct an assertion of Chinese intent as entry into Japan’s twelve nautical mile territorial waters. Nonetheless, today Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura noted that in the past three days Chinese vessels have again focused their attention on Japan’s territorial waters.

The Japan Coast Guard has met these intrusions with a steady patrol of vessels. Both Chinese and Japanese vessels have conveyed their right to be in these waters. For the most part, this maritime standoff has been well-managed, with Chinese and Japanese crews carefully avoiding any behavior that might cause a miscalculation by the other side. Japan, however, has little interest in sustained tensions in the East China Sea. Today, Japan Coast Guard commandant Takashi Kitamura, in a statement at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, implied that Japan would be willing to decrease its patrols if China did the same.

But the import of the enhanced Chinese maritime presence in Senkaku waters seems clear. By asserting its ability to deploy and maintain a steady presence around these islands, Beijing is testing what has to date been a monopoly on policing of these waters by Japan’s Coast Guard. Diplomatic protests by Japan notwithstanding China has slowly and steadily demonstrated that it can—and it will—assert its right to operate in the waters and now in the air over the disputed islands.

This morning’s flight introduced a new dimension to China’s test of Japan’s response. Coming in under the radar, at an altitude of 300 meters, the Chinese aircraft (Harbin Y-12) was discovered only by a sighting from a Japan Coast Guard vessel. Moreover, it flew directly over the Senkaku Islands without interference, causing considerable concern in the Japanese media about Japan’s defenses.

Interesting also is the timing of the flight. The region was focused on the surprising launch of a North Korean missile when this low flying reconnaissance flight went undetected by Japan’s radar. This implies that China is willing to use the opportunity afforded by other crises to test Japan, and to reveal vulnerabilities that Japan has not had to redress before. In small but consistent ways, China is pushing Japan to improve its defenses, to take steps to actively defend its southwestern islands.

Japan ought to do this. But Japanese leaders must also be alert to the possibility of a broader aim. Beijing is playing a dangerous game, one that increasingly appears to be aimed at isolating Tokyo. Support for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Sunday’s Lower House election is likely to grow in response to Chinese pressure on Japan’s defenses, and herein may lay Beijing’s real purpose.

Perhaps what Beijing is hoping to accomplish is to demonstrate that Japan’s postwar policy of limited self-defense has created vulnerabilities for Japan, vulnerabilities that a more hawkish LDP might consider rectifying. Revising the constitution, renaming Japan’s Self-Defense Force, asserting a more militarized national identity—these are all part of what Beijing could then point to as evidence that “Japanese militarism” is again on the rise.

This small flight over the Senkakus may seem innocuous, but it signals a creeping effort to change the administrative control over the islands. Within Japan, it creates deeper challenges for those who come into power this coming Sunday. Japan must be shrewd and calm; defend its territory and assert its desire for reconciliation. It must enhance its air and maritime defenses in the southwestern region, but it must also carefully consider the danger of relying on political symbols and assertions that feed into the vision of a “right-wing” nationalistic Japan that Beijing would be only too happy to exploit.

Baiting Japan’s politicians into a more reactive stance on the eve of an election…Welcome to the new Japan-China relationship.

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