On February 5, Japanese Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori told the world that a Chinese Navy frigate had pointed “something like fire-control radar” at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer some 100-150 kilometers north of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands on January 30. He said the same may have happened to a MSDF helicopter on January 19, though this remained unverified (Daily Yomiuri, February 7; Sydney Morning Herald, February 7).
This marked the first direct involvement of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships in the ongoing confrontations around the islands since Japan’s government purchased three of them from a private Japanese owner on September 10 last year. Accordingly, much reportage and analysis has characterized this as part of an ongoing series of escalatory Chinese actions in the East China Sea. Yet the radar incidents ran counter to a distinctly conciliatory trend since mid-January in China’s official rhetoric, diplomatic action, media discourse and even maritime activities.
Part of Xi’s Plan?
Chinese officials told the Lowy Institute’s Linda Jakobson that a Diaoyu response leadership task force formed in September under Xi Jinping’s leadership devised a step-by-step plan to force the Japanese government to acknowledge the existence of the sovereignty dispute. According to Dr. Jakobson, “the most recent escalation reflects the next step” in the implementation of such a plan (The Diplomat, February 8; Asahi Shimbun, February 4; Sydney Morning Herald, December 5, 2012).
There are compelling reference points to support the idea of a centrally-mandated Chinese strategy of steadily increasing pressure on the Japanese position in the waters and skies around the islands. The most salient are the regularization of previously-occasional maritime law enforcement patrols in contested waters since September; the first-ever recorded incursion by a PRC government plane into Japan-administered territorial airspace on December 13; and the scrambling of PLA fighter jets to confront Japanese F-15s on January 10 and 19 (Asahi Shimbun, February 6; South China Morning Post, January 11; Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MOFA], December 18, 2012).
Beijing’s official reaction to Japan’s allegation—more than two days of silence followed by flat denials by both the foreign and defense ministries—however, raises the possibility that the radar incidents were not a continuation of this pattern of deliberate escalation. Upon finding its voice on February 8, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) accused Japan of “completely creating something out of nothing,” while a Ministry of National Defense statement confirmed both encounters but said fire-control radars simply had not been used. These responses contrasted sharply with the ministries’ usual refrain when Chinese behavior in such areas has been questioned—namely, asserting that such activities are “routine” and “completely normal.”
The long silence would seem to imply that the incidents were a product of decisions made by actors outside the party center, possibly a mid-level PLA Navy commander was responsible. The MFA and MND’s effective disavowals of the PLA’s actions are not the only signs that the Chinese central leadership may have adjusted its approach to the Diaoyu crisis. Indeed, a range of conciliatory behavior over the past few weeks also suggests such a shift.
Sino-Japanese Diplomatic Thaw
From January 14, starting with Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying’s meeting with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Senator Kenji Kosaka, a succession of visits by China-friendly Japanese politicians were accorded prominent coverage in the official and popular media, dressed in positive imagery and photo-ops with Chinese leaders. Beijing also invited former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio for a four-day visit, and his January 16 meeting with Jia Qinglin ran on both CCTV’s flagship 7pm national news bulletin and the front page of the People’s Daily (People’s Daily, January 17; CCTV, January 16; Daily Yomiuri, January 12). Hatoyama’s apology the following day for crimes committed by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War was hailed by CCTV as “unprecedented,” and images of his visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall were splashed across the front pages of major daily newspapers (Japan Times, January 19; CCTV, January 17).
Next, and most importantly, came Yamaguchi Natsuo, leader of the New Komeito party, a junior coalition partner in Abe Shinzo’s government, who arrived on January 22 carrying a handwritten letter from the Japanese prime minister. His arrival was reported immediately in state television news updates, and the Chinese MFA spokesman Hong Lei quickly welcomed the visit by saying: “This facilitates both sides to step up communications, settle disputes and promote healthy bilateral ties” (South China Morning Post, January 23).
Chinese media coverage presented Yamaguchi as a powerful, moderate element in a Japanese government previously depicted as beholden to “rightists” with militarist ambitions. CCTV’s evening current affairs magazine show ran a segment that emphasized the New Komeito party’s positive historic role in Sino-Japanese relations, and told viewers it was now “once again a ruling party” that would directly influence the LDP’s judgments. The show even presented Japanese newspaper analyses stating Abe’s decision to send Yamaguchi “expressed the Japanese government’s intention to improve bilateral ties” (CCTV, January 22). In a further illustration of Beijing’s intention to shape the public mood to become more amenable to warming ties, a People’s Daily commentary questioning the sincerity of Japan’s stated intention to mend relations appeared only in the paper’s overseas edition (South China Morning Post, January 24).
Aside from scheduled meetings with two Chinese government-affiliated friendship associations, Yamaguchi’s itinerary was not declared publicly, and it remained unclear whether party General Secretary Xi Jinping would agree to meet with him or receive Abe’s letter. At one point on January 24, major internet news portals displayed leading headlines proclaiming “Japanese envoy visits China for two days with no result, has not obtained audience with Xi Jinping.”
On January 25, the last day of the trip, Xi did receive Yamaguchi in the Great Hall of the People. According to the People’s Daily‘s front-page, top-right, photo-illustrated lead report on the meeting, Xi Jinping said China “remains committed” to Sino-Japanese relations and urged both sides to “look at the big picture.” Invoking the legacies of Zhou Enlai and Tanaka Kakuei, who re-established Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations in 1972, Xi said: ”Like the older generation of leaders, we should show a sense of national and historical responsibility and political wisdom, overcome the difficulties in bilateral relations and push relations forward.” (People’s Daily, January 26).
Determined to De-escalate?
The high-profile, high-volume Chinese media coverage of the warming diplomatic ties indicates the leadership perceived little in the way of constraints on their freedom of action resulting from oppositional public or party opinion. Between Hatoyama’s arrival on January 16 and Yamaguchi’s meeting with Xi on January 25, a number of negative bilateral developments occurred, any of which may have prompted Xi to decline to meet with Abe’s emissary had the leadership been worried about a domestic backlash.
- On January 15, Defense Minister Onodera implied that Japanese fighter planes may fire warning shots at Chinese aircraft in airspace above the disputed islands (Asahi Shimbun, January 16). Popular Chinese media reported this as “explicit confirmation” that tracer bullets would be fired, spurring discussion of Japan’s hostility and the likelihood of war breaking out.
- On January 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a joint press conference alongside Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, stated for the first time that the United States was “oppose[d]” to acts that “seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (U.S. State Department, January 18).
- On January 22, Abe declared Japan would continue to send military aircraft to Senkaku/Diaoyu airspace whenever it so wished, and reiterated the position that no dispute over the islands’ sovereignty existed, rejecting Yamaguchi’s well-publicized proposal of “shelving” the island dispute (South China Morning Post, January 24).
- On January 24, Japan Coast Guard (JCG) vessels used water cannons on a Taiwanese fishing boat carrying Diaoyu activists, which was under escort from the Republic of China Coast Guard, 17 nautical miles from the islands. Dramatic footage and photographs of the skirmish were aired on China’s commercial television and widely published online.
Yet the Xi-Yamaguchi meeting not only went ahead, the stream of visits by Japanese statesmen continued afterwards with the arrival of former Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi along with other current LDP politicians on January 29. More upbeat remarks from Chinese officials followed, including the Chinese Ambassador at Geneva Liu Zhenmin saying the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute could be “controlled”, and PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Qi Jianguo telling U.S. lawmakers “China will never cause a maritime conflict by choice” (Asahi Shimbun, February 4; AP, January 25).
There has been a concrete aspect to the Chinese de-escalation, which domestic “nationalist” constituencies also have failed to constrain. The January-February period has seen a surprising quantitative decline in the frequency of Chinese government boats entering the 12 nautical miles (nm) of territorial waters around the disputed islands. According to Japanese Coast Guard reports, Chinese boats made 11 entries into the 12nm zone in the 34 days between December 5 and January 7 (NHK, January 7; Daily Yomiuri, December 5, 2012). In the next 34 days from January 8 to February 11, Japanese authorities, however, found Chinese boats entering the territorial waters only three times (Kyodo News, February 11; Japanese MOFA, February 7; Jiji Press, January 30). Operational wear and tear on the Chinese side probably are not behind this drop-off. During this period, China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships conducted several patrols in the “contiguous zone” adjacent to the territorial waters from which they could have entered the 12nm zone with little extra effort or resources.
On two further occasions, China’s State Oceanic Administration and an embedded Xinhua correspondent publicly claimed that CMS vessels entered the territorial waters, but the JCG does not appear to have counted either of these instances (Xinhua, February 9; State Oceanic Administration, January 19). This could be a sign that fatigue is affecting the JCG’s ability to monitor the area, but, even if the Chinese claims are correct, the reduction in CMS 12nm zone entries remains clear (from 11 down to five). China’s ships recently have spent longer periods of time inside the zone, including 13 hours on January 7 and 14 hours on February 4. Staying longer inside the zone—long enough to be sure to attract a formal, diplomatic protest from Japan, which can then be high-handedly rejected—may be a less provocative, and, thus, more economical and risk-averse way for Beijing to maintain the impression of ongoing patrols among the public back home.
Managing Multiple Discourses
Over the past several weeks, Beijing also has shown its ability to separately manage and shape multiple domestic discourses among different constituencies on international and military affairs. While “combat readiness” has become a party and military watchword of the early Xi Jinping era, Chinese authorities have been actively putting a dampener on expectations for military action among the general public of late (South China Morning Post, January 21). In effect, the party appears to be trying to increase combat readiness among the military at the same time as decreasing it among the public. Numerous media commentaries have appeared in party-controlled popular media in recent weeks arguing explicitly that China must avoid getting involved in a war.
Through December and early January, the Global Times editorial pages carried numerous declarations of enthusiasm for a Diaoyu war, always in the name of “the Chinese people.” On January 16, the paper, however, unexpectedly opined “The Chinese media have seen a growing number of discussions about war recently…the whole society needs to make a thorough reflection. War is a terrible thing. No matter who is the enemy, any war will bring great shock to Chinese society, risking severe damage to national economy” (Global Times, January 16). Other commentaries arguing against or downplaying the prospect of a war for Diaoyu appeared on January 22, February 4 and February 8. All were widely republished on major Chinese internet news portals.
The most remarkable anti-war contribution has come from General Liu Yuan, son of Liu Shaoqi and Political Commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department. The Global Times on February 4 published an extract from General Liu’s study notes on the “spirit” of the recently completed 18th CCP Congress under the headline, “Protect the Period of Strategic Opportunity, War is a Last Resort.” With broad sweeps of Chinese doctrine (in particular the title), classical Chinese strategy and nationalistic rhetoric, the piece was a blistering attack on warmongering in general and the idea of a war to seize occupied islands in particular.
China‘s economic development already has been shattered by war with Japan twice before, Liu Yuan observed, and it “absolutely must not be interrupted again by some accidental incident.” Like Gou Jian and Han Xin, legendary kings of yore, China must abandon its short-term pride and work for long-term glory. “The United States and Japan are afraid of us catching up, and will use all means to check China’s development, but we absolutely must not take their bait” (Global Times, February 4)> In the context of today’s Chinese defense and military discourse, there can be few more effective ways to discredit military adventurism than to cast it as a U.S. trap.
While sensational, hawkish analyses from academic pundits bearing PLA military rank are common in the China’s popular media, detailed commentaries from genuine operational PLA Generals are rare. Perhaps best known outside China for his outspoken anti-corruption crackdown, General Liu is believed to be a close ally of Xi Jinping with a personal relationship stretching back to days of princeling privilege and mutual suffering during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (China Leadership Monitor, No. 36, January 6, 2012). To the extent that the two also might share ideological conditionings and convictions, Liu Yuan’s February 4 article bodes well for Xi’s future management of the East China Sea tensions.
Radar-locking incidents aside, Beijing’s behavior in recent weeks seems aimed at calming tensions. The opacity of the Chinese party-state and military make the incidents on January 19 and January 30 difficult to explain with certainty. Pointing radars at the Japanese helicopter and warship may have been a messy local interpretation of an ongoing centrally-mandated strategy to increase pressure on Japan around the islands, though the MFA and MND’s denials at least show the central leadership is not willing to endorse such actions openly. It is also possible that the delayed official response was a stratagem aimed at projecting a false impression of dysfunction, or of the PLA having acted unilaterally. Whatever the case, the propaganda windfall for Japan has been rich. China appears reckless, aggressive and dangerous, despite having reached out diplomatically, pacified domestic public opinion and scaled back its maritime incursions over the past few weeks. A lack of direct management of the issue by a central leadership with an immense domestic policy burden is most likely part of the explanation. With their powerful warning against “some accidental incident” derailing the “Chinese Dream” of a great national rejuvenation, the publication of General Liu’s 18th Party Congress study notes seems a significant step among Beijing’s current measures to avoid a conflagration.