The Fire-Control Radar Incident: Incompetence or Malice?

When last year’s Defense White Paper (“Defense of Japan”) came out there was much media commentary over whether it represented a new direction for Japanese security policy towards China. I argued at the Shingetsu News Agency that such rhetoric was somewhat alarmist, and that there were more continuities in the document than deviations. Clearly not an avid reader of this blog or SNA, the Chinese government seemed to think otherwise. They particularly took issue with the concern raised by the Japanese MOD regarding whether “civilian control” was really being observed in China. The MOD noted that the relationship between the CCP and the PLA was becoming more “complex,” which is far more generous than many China analysts, sympathetic or otherwise, would have been. Apparently however pointing this out was evidence of “militarists” having taken over the security agenda in Japan.

We got a crystal clear expression of why the MOD was right to raise this concern during the back and forth over the fire-control radar “painting” incident this week.

Not only did the Chinese offer a “no comment” when first asked, but in follow up questioning the Chinese MOFA admitted (日) that the first they knew of the issue was when the Japanese government announced it, and that it is necessary to ask the “responsible agency”「われわれも報道で知った。具体的な状況は承知しておらず、(別の)関連部署に聞いてほしい」!!

That is not going to be reassuring to the Japanese. At all.

Either the MOFA genuinely did not about this and is expressing its anger at PLA in a very bizarre and impotent way, or, the MOFA is playing a part in a cynical attempt to deflect international attention from a clear provocation deserving criticism. Either way it does not bode well.

Trust also that this incident is not a minor issue.

When the Japanese government recently wondered out loud whether it would employ the use of warning shots whenever a Chinese aircraft entered Senkaku airspace, this was seen as provocative. Fair enough, although we need to note two things. One, it was just talk and was always unlikely to go further than that and such talk was quietly discontinued- a sensible decision in my estimation. Two, while provocative and more a last resort, the use of warning flares, is, for better or worse, a relatively common way of of letting an aircraft and its pilots know that they are doing something utterly unacceptable.

The actual use of fire-control radar, for example, to express annoyance at MSDF vessels tracking Chinese vessels at a distance  in the East China Sea (3kms in this case) as some have suggested, is however, not part of any standard operating procedure or in the rules for peaceful maritime engagement. The last time something like this happened in 2005, when a  PLA(N) destroyer aimed its guns at an MSDF surveillance aircraft near the Chunxiao/Shirakaba gas field, Japanese defense analysts remained touchy for some time. This is worse than that and it will certainly be in next year’s Defense White Paper. And as Kevin Maher notes  (日) in the Japanese media, again for better or worse, if this happened to a US vessel, then the Chinese vessel would not have a “few minutes” as it did with the MSDF vessel before the initiation of a forceful response.

The Chinese response to this is important for many in the security community in Japan, many of whom are level-headed and traditionally have not even been particularly antagonistic towards China. At least, certainly less so than some of Japan’s politicians. From the point of view of many in this community, an unfortunate diplomatic contrast will become obvious.

When Japan makes mere mention of using the provocative but “valid” option of firing warning flares to direct a Chinese government aircraft out of contested territory under Japan’s control, a high-ranking Chinese defense official comes out with nationalistic bombast along the lines of “if Japan were to dare using such an option around the Senkakus, we would not wait to see what the follow up would be.”

Japan retreats.

When a Chinese maritime vessel paints a MSDF vessel 3kms away with a fire-control radar on the open sea for a number of minutes, the MSDF performs “standard evasive maneuvers” like it is a training exercise, and retreats. The Japanese government thinks about it for a few days, collects data, and then makes a diplomatic protest. What will China’s response be? Obfuscation? Defiance? Apology? It will matter to many, and not just the public and the usual political suspects keen to exploit the issue for political gain.

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