During a parliamentary committee hearing today in Tokyo, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stated that China’s use of naval fire control radar to lock on to a Japanese naval vessel constituted a threat of military force. Tokyo has also lodged an official protest in Beijing over the Jan. 30 incident.
Earlier last month, a similar incident occurred with a Japanese navy helicopter being ‘painted’ by the fire control radar of a Chinese frigate. Beijing has not confirmed or denied either of these incidents. The U.S. State Department has labeled these events as ‘troubling’ and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has commented that China must stop making threats.
Over the course of 2012 there have been numerous encounters at sea and in the skies between Japan and China centered on the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands ranging from interception and arrest of Chinese fisherman by the Japanese Coast Guard to airspace incursions and the scrambling of both sides jet fighter.
This latest incident is the most serious to date since ‘painting’ or locking onto a vessel or aircraft with fire control radar is for the purpose of targeting the aggressors combat systems computers just before opening fire on the ‘painted’ ship or aircraft.
During the Cold War, it was very common for Soviet naval vessels to exercise this practice of ‘painting’ and locking on to U.S. Navy and allied naval vessels particularly during times of crisis between the Western and Soviet Blocs.
Though provocative, it was a pattern of Soviet behavior known and understood by the West as intended to be intimidating and/or to trigger a premature aggressive response from the vessel or aircraft being targeted, thereby creating a military incident.
As with Soviet strategy in the Cold War days, it is probable that China mainly seeks to provoke an ‘action’ by Japan. Given Japan’s imperialist and expansionist history prior to 1945; including invasion and occupation of large swaths of China it would serve greatly to Beijing’s political advantage if Japan were manipulated into firing the first shot and then be seen as the ‘aggressor’ against China.
China could either be seeking justification for a larger military action or a negotiated settlement whereby Japan surrenders claim to the Senkaku Islands leaving China free to unilaterally declare them Chinese sovereign territory with no serious opposition.
China has already achieved a de facto sovereignty over islands adjacent to the Philippines after conducting similar incursions which went totally unchallenged by a defenseless Philippines and a totally disinterested Obama Administration.
However, given the mostly inferior state of Chinese warships in comparison with Japan’s modern fleet of large warships it would be naval suicide for China to engage Japan in an open sea battle; a fact which Beijing is well aware of despite all the Chinese propaganda to the contrary.
Viewed in that light it is entirely possible China’s seaborne adventurism could be smoke and mirrors masking preparations for a different military expedition on another front.