Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera revealed Feb. 5 that a Chinese warship locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese destroyer operating in the East China Sea last month. In doing so, the Chinese vessel essentially signaled it was preparing to open fire.
In a separate incident earlier in January, a Chinese frigate apparently locked on to a helicopter belonging to Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, according to Onodera.
It remains unclear what caused tensions to suddenly ramp up like this. But what is clear is that the Chinese ships engaged in dangerously provocative acts that could easily have triggered a military clash. Thus, the Chinese actions are completely unacceptable. The Japanese government did the right thing when it lodged a strong formal protest with Beijing over these incidents.
The dispute over sovereignty of the Senkakus has escalated since the Japanese government purchased some of the islands from a private landowner last September. Chinese ships have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the group of islets.
In December, a propeller plane operated by China’s State Oceanic Administration entered Japanese territorial airspace over the islands in the East China Sea. That also added to tensions as China scrambled fighter jets in response to patrolling and monitoring operations by SDF aircraft and U.S. reconnaissance planes.
But the act of putting a radar-lock on a Japanese ship and a helicopter are far more serious in nature than anything that had occurred previously in connection with the dispute.
It has been reported that some members of the Chinese military, as well as the public, are even clamoring to start a war with Japan over the sovereignty issue. It is possible that Beijing is escalating its provocative behavior due to pressure from such belligerent voices at home. If so, this is something we must not overlook. We strongly urge China to exercise self-restraint.
We are deeply concerned that current tensions between Japan and China over the island dispute could touch off an accidental armed clash. The governments of the two countries should act swiftly to establish an effective channel of communication to prevent such a crisis from happening.
Some encouraging signs of diplomatic efforts by both countries to improve the strained bilateral relations finally emerged recently.
Last month, Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, visited China carrying a personal letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In his meeting with Yamaguchi, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, the country’s new leader, stressed the importance of acting from a “broader perspective” for the sake of further development of the bilateral relationship.
But the radar-locking incidents could shut the window of opportunity for constructive dialogue between the two countries that has finally opened.
China’s Communist Party has set up a new organization for coordinated actions concerning the Senkaku Islands dispute among the military, the State Oceanic Administration and other bodies concerned. The new organization is headed by Xi himself.
It is not clear whether Xi was aware of the military’s use of the radar against a Japanese ship and a helicopter. But he is clearly responsible for what happened. What are his thoughts about these provocative acts, which are totally inconsistent with his call for behavior based on a “broader perspective?”
Other countries are becoming increasingly concerned about the tense standoff between Japan and China.
Last month, before her retirement from office, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a strong warning against further provocative acts by China in connection with the islands dispute. In a news conference after her meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Clinton said, “We oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the islands.
Beijing has effectively ignored this message from the U.S. government.
The international community is becoming increasingly uncomfortable about China’s militant behavior. Beijing should realize that.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 6
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