If Japan was nervous yesterday about China’s military build-up, it will likely be even more so today.
Reports Thursday suggested Japan has voiced renewed concerns following an incident involving two Chinese naval planes. According to AFP, Japan was forced to scramble fighters to chase off the Chinese aircraft after they came within 35 miles of the disputed Senkaku Islands that are administered by Japan (they are known as Diaoyu in Chinese).
‘We regard the modernisation of China's military power and its growing and intense activities as concerns,’ Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano is quoted as having said. ‘Our country will continue to pay close attention to moves by China's military.’
It’s not just Japan that has been tweaked this week. Yesterday, South Korea’s coastguard reportedly shot and wounded a crew member of a Chinese trawler after the Chinese vessel was boarded following suspicions that it was fishing illegally in waters off the coastal town of Taean.
‘Coastguard officers boarded the boats, which were suspected of fishing 11 kilometres inside South Korea's exclusive economic zone, but faced tough resistance from weapons-wielding Chinese crewmen.
‘“The Chinese crewmen wielded a hammer, a hatchet and metal pipes, hurting one of our coastguard officers. We had no choice but to fire off some live shots," the (coastguard) spokesman said.’
Today, China announced that it will be boosting military spending by 12.7 percent this year, returning it to double-digit growth after it rose just 7.5 percent in 2010— the lowest increase in years. Of course, these official figures are generally seen as significantly underestimating military expenditure, so the true figure could be much higher. But even this kind of growth is bound to worry neighbours who were already nervous about the increasingly assertive posture that China had started to strike last year.
One reason for the big hike this year could be a desire to boost PLA salaries at a time when inflation concerns are looming large. Also, it bears repeating that even with these kinds of increases, the United States still spends more on defence than the next dozen or so countries combined.
But perceptions matter—something you’d have hoped Beijing would have learned after the various spats it found itself in with neighbours last year. Harassing neighbours at sea hardly seems the best way to reassure them about your intentions, and is certainly no way of advancing Chinese diplomacy. Unless, of course, some see a chance to spark another little row in the hope that Chinese will rally around the flag. China’s leadership does, after all, have a history of fanning the flames of nationalism. With a wary eye on unrest in the Arab world, it must seem at least a little tempting for some to dust off this play now.