The announcement by Japan’s defense minister that a Chinese frigate last month locked its weapons-control radar onto a Japanese destroyer was jarring. The already tense stand-off between Beijing and Tokyo over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands escalated to a new and dangerous level.
Japanese officials have not clarified whether the incident took place on the high seas or in disputed waters. Chinese officials have not confirmed the incident. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokeswoman initially gave a vague answer when asked about it, giving rise to speculation that government officials in Beijing were not entirely on top of the most recent turn of events. The fact that the MFA was not kept in the loop about a military incident like this is not surprising. The power of the ministry has been on the decline for several years. There are numerous examples of the MFA not being consulted on, or informed of, decisions made by other government agencies, let alone the PLA.
A more crucial question is whether or not Xi Jinping had approved of the Chinese frigate locking its radar onto the Japanese vessel. Consequently, analysts around the world are once again pondering a perpetual question: Is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acting independently of the Communist Party (CPC) leadership?
The only honest answer to the question is that we simply do not know. Decision-making processes in China are opaque. We know that major political decisions are made by the all-powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, headed by Xi Jinping, who is also the chair of the Central Military Commission. As the only civilian on the Central Military commission, Xi is the crucial link between senior civilian and military leaders, but nothing is known about the precise nature of interaction between Xi and PLA leaders when pivotal decisions are made. Not even the timing and agenda of either the Politburo Standing Committee or Central Military Commission meetings are made public.
Based on private discussions I have had with Chinese officials since the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the five disputed islands in September 2012, the most recent escalation reflects the next step in plans made by China’s senior leaders in response to what Beijing perceives as an intolerable state of affairs. Xi Jinping was reportedly made head of a new “Office to Respond to the Diaoyu Crisis” soon after the Japanese government’s announcement. State Counsellor Dai Binguo, China’s top diplomat for the past five years, as well as several senior military officers were assigned to this task force.
From Beijing’s perspective, the decision by the Japanese government last September to purchase the islands from their private owner signaled the nationalization of the islands, an unacceptable change in the status quo. According to my sources, a step-by-step plan was devised by the new Diaoyu task force and then approved by Xi to deal with each possible contingency. The plan’s goal is to force the Japanese government to at a minimum acknowledge that the sovereignty of the islands is disputed. Japan’s current stance is that there is no dispute – the islands belong to Japan. A change in Japan’s stance would open up the possibility for both sides to use diplomatic channels to agree that vessels of each respective nation would patrol the disputed waters on alternate days to assert sovereignty. More importantly, it could facilitate discussions on sharing fishing rights in the disputed waters. Fishermen have been at the center of several disputes which have led to an escalation of tensions between the two countries.