This week yet another ratcheting up of tensions between Japanese and Chinese forces in the East China Sea drew our attention. Alongside the incremental escalation of danger inherent in these interactions is the dueling narratives about what is actually happening on the ground—or, more accurately, on the water and in the air. The confusing stories coming out of Northeast Asian capitals only complicate an already worrisome situation, one that could easily result in a local commander behaving badly or miscalculating.
The latest iteration is the intriguing Chinese response to the most recent incident. The Japanese government protested a Chinese Jiangwei-II class naval frigate’s use of radar to actively target Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer Yudachi. The incident occurred on January 30 in waters 100–200 kilometers (62–124 miles) northwest of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. A similar incident apparently occurred on January 19 when a MSDF helicopter was the object of a firing radar lock by a Chinese Jiangkai-I class frigate, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense.
At first, Beijing authorities did not acknowledge the incident, but noted the report in the Japanese media of the incident. Silence then ensued, leading many to speculate that the ship’s commander had not had authorization from Beijing for his actions. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that fire control radar was not used in either incident and that Japan has “repeatedly spread false accusations which distorted facts and defamed Chinese military’s normal combat readiness training.” A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also reported the results of the Defense Ministry’s investigation, stated that the incident never happened, and accused Japan of “completely making something out of nothing.”
Adding to this effort to claim nothing happened are the Russians, who apparently sent two SU-27 jets into Japanese airspace to the northwest of Hokkaido. When the Russian Defense Ministry denied the event, saying its military aircraft flew in “strict accordance with international rules governing airspace,” the Japanese government offered to hand over the data to prove it. Why exactly the Russians would want to exacerbate an already tense situation between Japan and China is unclear. Japan has little incentive to make up an incident since Japan’s prime minister has personally argued for better relations with Moscow.
Exchanging data over these types of incidents would be wise for all concerned, but particularly for Japan and China. If Tokyo and Beijing want to contain the escalatory dynamics between their forces in the East China Sea, then this would be the right moment to begin to work on processes for better managing an already dangerous situation. Noteworthy is the Chinese acknowledgement that this kind of radar targeting is a “dangerous act,” and one that the Beijing government would recognize as unacceptable.
The finger pointing over who is raising the stakes, Japan or China, can blur lines of communication within governments as easily as between them. Local commanders must understand who is in charge in Beijing and in Tokyo. Sharing data between central government authorities on incidents such as these would build confidence in each country’s desire to avoid serious incidents between their two militaries. Equally important, it would help Japanese and Chinese governments be fully confident that each is in full control of their militaries.