BEIJING--China’s response to the Senkaku Islands dispute is now under the direct command and coordination of a top-level task force of the Communist Party of China, led by General Secretary Xi Jinping.
A source close to the Communist Party said the creation of the new task force, said to be modeled after the U.S. National Security Council, means that the dispute has become one of the most important issues for China along with reunification with Taiwan and others.
Tensions between Japan and China are mounting over the five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Military sources told The Asahi Shimbun that the two countries scrambled fighter jets several times on Jan. 19, although no announcements were made publicly.
Two Jian-10 fighters took off from an air base outside Shanghai and followed a U.S. airborne warning and control aircraft, which carries a surveillance system for tracking other planes, north of the Senkaku Islands at a close distance, the sources said.
Two F-15 fighters of the Air Self-Defense Force then took off to counter the Chinese move, the sources said.
The United States has been deploying airborne warning and control aircraft since mid-January following China’s violation of Japanese airspace near the islands in December.
According to the Defense Ministry, SDF fighters were scrambled against Chinese aircraft as many as 91 times between October and December.
“An accidental collision could occur at any time (near the Senkaku Islands),” a senior official of the People’s Liberation Army said, referring to a collision between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft near China’s Hainan Island in 2001.
In waters around the Senkaku Islands, Chinese government ships have squared off with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats almost daily.
The Communist Party leadership set up the task force for maintaining maritime interests on Sept. 14, immediately after Japan put three of the Senkaku Islands under state ownership, according to the source close to the Communist Party.
It is headed by Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, while Dai Bingguo, a state councilor in charge of foreign policy, serves as deputy chief. Members include senior officials of the PLA General Staff Department.
The dedicated team was created because the PLA and other government divisions were responding to the Senkaku Islands issue without coordination, the source said.
Members command surveillance ships and military forces via radio and videophone communications. Part of the aim is to prevent accidents caused by excessive front-line actions.
The Communist Party is known to have top-level task forces on Taiwan and crisis management including national security.
According to a former senior official of the State Oceanic Administration, crews of surveillance ships in the East China Sea sometimes commiserated with each other over their radios that they were not entitled to overtime or could not take leave for weeks.
“Their morale and skills were lower compared with Japan Coast Guard employees,” the former official said.
But Japanese government sources said the Chinese have become “disciplined and serious” after the task force for maintaining maritime interests was set up.
READY FOR WAR
In early January, the PLA was gearing up for a possible war with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, according to a military source.
The Jan. 14 edition of the PLA Daily said the PLA General Staff Department told all military branches to prepare for war.
The military source said the order was issued in response to tensions in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands and meant that all military branches were preparing for war.
A similar order was last issued in 1979, immediately before China’s military intervention with Vietnam following the country’s invasion into Cambodia.
After the latest order was issued, the PLA shifted fighters from inland areas to coastal areas such as Shanghai and made other moves, Japanese and U.S. government sources said.
According to the Feb. 2 edition of the China Youth Daily, all three warships of the PLA North Sea Fleet are conducting a live-fire drill in the western Pacific.
A senior official of the fleet described the exercise as “an exceptional drill preparing for actual fighting,” according to the newspaper.
But things began to change in late January, apparently coinciding with a meeting between Xi and Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Xi called for improving bilateral relations during the meeting.
Chinese surveillance ships subsequently did not appear near the Senkaku Islands on some days, Japanese government sources said. Previously, they were present almost daily except for days when the weather was bad.
The number of ships also fell from four to two or three, the sources said.
On Jan. 29, Qi Jianquo, a deputy chief of general staff of the PLA, also emphasized that China will resolve the Senkaku Islands row through diplomacy, not military force.
In a meeting with visiting U.S. lawmakers, Qi said, “China will never cause a maritime conflict by choice.”
Still, experts in Japan and China believe that a military conflict between the two countries is possible.
SDF sources said Japan would have an advantage if a brief and local war were waged. Its warships are better equipped, pilots are more experienced and the country is allied with the United States, the sources said.
However, Meng Yan, deputy director of the international communications bureau of the Ministry of National Defense, denied the accuracy of such analysis in a paper published in the People’s Daily in October.
Meng argued that the Japanese failed to take into account the PLA’s missile capabilities. He said the PLA might destroy SDF bases and ports with missiles to deprive combat capabilities in the event of a naval battle.
The PLA’s responses to the Senkaku Islands issue appear to directly reflect Xi’s intentions.
Xi succeeded Hu Jintao as general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission in November. Xi is more closely connected with the PLA than his predecessor.
According to a report by the Xinhua News Agency, Hu introduced Xi during a meeting, saying he has participated in military affairs since he was a local leader.
Xi’s biographical documents prepared by the party include the military posts he has held since he served in rural areas, including Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. They are not found for Hu and other party leaders.
Xi also served in the general office of the Central Military Commission while he was in his 20s.
According to a former senior party official whose father was a ranking party official, Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a former vice premier, told him to assume military posts. He followed the words of Mao Tse-tung, who said a military career is necessary to become a leader.
The PLA supports the Communist Party’s one-party rule. Deng Xiaoping and other party leaders wielded power as chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Xi’s thinking, in turn, appears to have been influenced by the intentions of senior military officials.
Since he became general secretary, Xi has repeatedly said: “Restoring the Chinese people is the greatest of our dreams.”
According to a source close to a military think tank, Xi’s remark is based on a report titled “China’s Dream,” written by Liu Mingfu, a professor at the PLA National Defense Academy.
The report, published in 2010, criticized the United States as a dictatorial nation seeking hegemony and oppressing China. It has been banned apparently for fear of fueling overseas arguments that China is a threat.
However, Gen. Liu Yuan, political commissar at the PLA General Logistics Department, decided to republish the report at the end of last year.
A son of former President Liu Shaoqi, Liu Yuan has been a friend of Xi’s from childhood.
When Xi inspected the Guangzhou Military Region in December, he said, “Increasing wealth and military power is necessary for the great restoration of the Chinese people,” also a statement in "China's Dream."
The source close to the military think tank said, “Liu Yuan exerts no small influence on Xi’s policies and thinking.”
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