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.
The chain of events since Tokyo’s purchase of the islands would appear to confirm that a plan of this nature was drawn up. Beijing began sending civilian law enforcement vessels to patrol the area around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, crossing into the 12- nautical-mile territorial zone around the islands, with the intention of “protecting” China’s sovereignty. Next, aircraft of these law enforcement agencies were sent to patrol the islands, prompting Japan to send fighter jets to intercept what Tokyo views as intruders. It wasn’t long before Chinese and Japanese jets were both engaging one another over the islands. It is not known whether the most recent action by China, the locking of radar onto a Japanese vessel, was the next step in the task force’s plan, but it seems plausible.
What is not plausible is that Xi Jinping would have personally approved this particular lock-on radar action; he would not have been consulted on one specific PLA operation. It is also unlikely that an individual frigate commander made the decision independently. The order presumably came from a senior level officer of the Northern Fleet command.
Although Xi presumably agreed to the task force’s plan of a step-by-step approach to increase pressure on Japan, a Chinese official I spoke to on January 10, 2013 said that Xi had not attended meetings of the “Office to Respond to the Diaoyu Crisis” since becoming General Secretary of the CCP in mid-November. If accurate and if Xi has not attended meetings between January 10 and the present (of which I have no information), Xi’s absence raises serious concerns related to the consequences of inattention by China’s senior leaders to the islands’ disputes – an issue I discussed in a recent Lowy Institute Analysis, China’s foreign policy dilemma.
Decision-making processes in China are often dysfunctional. In examples of the lack of control or coordination within China’s decision-making apparatus, the Ministry of Public Security and the Hainan provincial government both made unilateral decisions in recent months that damaged China’s international standing and caused an outcry in neighboring countries. Once a decision concerning a sensitive issue has been announced publicly it is very difficult for Xi to retract it. China does, after all, officially claim several disputed islands and the surrounding waters as its own territory, so issuing a directive to nullify a new directive related to sovereignty issues would be interpreted as bowing to outside pressure. As the new leader of the Communist Party, Xi must establish his credentials as a leader who will protect China’s national sovereignty and not allow outsiders to dictate China’s actions. Moreover, Xi has yet to consolidate his power base with numerous Communist Party factions that he relies on for political support.
The current situation between China and Japan is extremely worrisome. There is a genuine risk of a fatal incident occurring – whether intentional or accidental. In such a situation, Xi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be under intense domestic pressure to respond harshly, given the nationalist sentiment in both countries. Neither leader would have much room to maneuver, and the situation could spiral out of control.
In sum, it is probable that Xi personally approved a step-by-step plan to intensify pressure on Japan to accept that the islands are disputed. But we do not know to what level of detail Xi Jinping is kept abreast of activities in the islands’ dispute. In the Lowy Institue Analysis, I quote a Chinese official involved in the standoff with Japan. He said, “It would be inaccurate to say that Xi Jinping is not aware of the dangers related to the Diaoyu issue, but at times he is intentionally given exaggerated assessments by those who want him to take a tough stance.” There are several groups of elites in China who would like Xi to take a “tougher stance”, especially when dealing with Japan.
Linda Jakobson is East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Before moving to Sydney in 2011 she lived and worked in China for twenty years.