Japan's defense minister has said actions by a Chinese frigate that aimed a weapons-guiding radar at a Japanese warship in the East China Sea last week "likely constituted" a threat of force as defined by the United Nations.
The minister, Itsunori Onodera, added that Tokyo will press Beijing to set up communication hotlines to guard against accidental escalation.
Switching on a weapons-guiding range-finding radar and pointing it at a target is, in some circumstances, the immediate precursor to opening fire. In two incidents last month, the crews of a Japanese destroyer and helicopter reported being within radar radio waves for several minutes.
Onodera was speaking Feb. 7 at a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee.
There are conflicting opinions within the Abe administration as to the level of danger the incident posed. One senior government official said it only shows Beijing has limited control over its military.
"The incident did not represent a high-level decision by China," the official said.
Another government source suggested the incident was unlikely to have resulted in an actual attack.
"The gun barrel was not directed toward the Self-Defense Forces destroyer," the official said.
Proposals to create a high-level defense hotline have gained traction on the Japanese side.
"We wish to set up a mechanism for maritime communications to prevent a crisis from arising unexpectedly," said Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, addressing a news conference Feb. 6.
The proposal dates back to April 2007, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first period in office, met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and agreed to begin talks on creating a hotline.
Plans included establishing communication links between high-level officials, including those at the Cabinet level, and agreeing which language and radio frequencies to use when aircraft pilots or warship commanders need to contact those on the other side.
In June, China and Japan agreed to try to put initial measures in place by the end of 2012. But the agreement was never signed because relations soured following Tokyo's decision in September to put in state ownership three of the Senkaku Islands, five islets held by Japan but claimed by China.
Informed sources said the latest incident took place 180 kilometers north of the Senkaku Islands.
The administration decided it was a timely moment to call on China to resume work on creating new communications links, which had, after all, been agreed previously at the summit level.
Furthermore, Tokyo decided it should "firmly state" its belief that the two governments should join hands against reckless, unsanctioned behavior by front-line commanders, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
But how to restart talks is another question. A senior official at the Defense Ministry said Beijing has dodged all requests for negotiations since September. The Chinese side typically cites "scheduling complications," the official said.
"Beijing will not respond to our calls," said a senior Foreign Ministry official.
So far, Beijing has offered no substantial reaction to Tokyo's allegations over the weapons-guidance incident.
"We don't know details, so please refer to the relevant department for more information," said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry. She repeated the answer three times during a 15-minute scheduled news conference on Feb. 6.
"Did the foreign ministry know nothing about the use of the radar by the Chinese frigate until it was informed by Japanese officials?" a reporter asked.
Hua remained silent for six seconds before replying: "You may understand so."
The "relevant department" refers to the Ministry of National Defense, which itself has said nothing.
And the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, carried no mention of the incident in its Feb. 6 edition. Neither did state-run China Central Television do so in its Feb. 6 news bulletins.
Observers attribute the silence to officials fearing the incident would fuel a rise in nationalist anti-Japan sentiment by the Chinese public.
They say Beijing similarly fears that escalating the crisis would bring China under fire from the international community because using radar in that way could be considered a straight military confrontation.
Meanwhile, the electronic edition of the Global Times, a publication affiliated with the People's Daily, accused Japan of staging the incident.
It pointed out that Tokyo had said little about the maneuvers the Japanese and Chinese warships were engaged in at the time, implying that if the incident had occurred at all the Japanese vessel may have been partly responsible.
The Chinese public has long expressed frustration with Japanese and United States warships and P-3C surveillance aircraft monitoring the Chinese fleet whenever its warships traverse the Okinawa island chain, which they tend to do by passing through waters off Miyakojima island.
Both the government and the Chinese military agree that backing down on the Senkakus issue is not an option. Observers expect them to keep applying military pressure--while taking care to keep a lid on domestic opinion, which otherwise might exert pressure on foreign policy.
(Atsushi Okudera contributed to this article.)
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