China Power

Too Close for Comfort

A surprisingly large Chinese naval exercise raises some comment and concern in Japan.

What was China up to? On Saturday, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force reportedly spotted two submarines and eight destroyers sailing between Okinawa’s main island and the island of Miyako.

Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has announced a detailed analysis is being undertaken, including over whether ‘there was any intent toward this country or not.’ The incident is said to have marked the first time in a number of recent cases in which surfaced submarines have been involved, and followed another incident last week in which a Chinese helicopter came within 90 meters of a Japanese monitoring vessel sailing near a Chinese naval exercise.

Although the vessels in Saturday’s incident are believed to have been in international waters, it’s still a significant naval presence so close (about 140 kilometres) to Japan and the size of the exercise took the foreign minister by surprise, according to Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

The sighting, coming just a couple of days before a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Washington on the sidelines of the nuclear summit taking place there, has prompted some speculation about the timing.

Of course, an exercise of this size would likely have to have been planned well in advance of the Hatoyama-Hu meeting. But the incident will still inevitably fuel talk over how independently naval officers might be acting of their political masters, something that’s perhaps understandable after the outspoken comments made by serving officers in the wake of the US arms sale to Taiwan earlier this year that I’ve talked about before here.

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If Japan’s Joint Staff Office of the Self-Defense Forces is correct in its assertion that China didn’t notify Tokyo about the fleet navigation then it’s either an unnecessary provocation or an inexcusable oversight. China will be fully aware of the attention its naval build-up is drawing around the region. If it wants to be taken at its word that its neighbours have nothing to fear, then it will need to ensure that these kind of avoidable incidents aren’t a regular occurrence.