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Feb 7, 2013 | 11:15 GMT

China's Risky Strategy in Maritime Disputes

China's Risky Strategy in Maritime Disputes
RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

On the surface, China's claim that it was unaware of recent actions by its naval forces against the Japanese raises serious questions about the degree of political control over the military and the stability of the region. However, despite this rare and seemingly surprising public admission from the Foreign Ministry, Beijing is likely threatening that it may not be able to continue holding back its military as part of a strategy to convince neighboring countries to cede to its maritime claims.

The Jan. 30 naval incident reportedly involved a Jiangwei II-class frigate (Type 053H3) from the North Sea Fleet and a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Murasame-class destroyer near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. According to reports, the Chinese naval vessel locked its fire-control radar on the Japanese vessel.

Location of Chinese-Japanese Naval Incident

Japan-China Naval Incident map

A fire-control radar is used to provide the data necessary to calculate a firing solution, after which missiles or shells can be fired at the target. The Chinese move to paint and lock on the Japanese destroyer with a fire-control radar is a provocative move that could have elicited an aggressive Japanese response. The move followed another incident in late January in which a Chinese Jiangkai I-class frigate (Type 054) locked its radar on a Japanese navy helicopter. Both incidents were revealed by the Japanese days later. Particularly with the heightened tensions between China and Japan surrounding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, this sort of move could lead to serious miscalculations from both sides and even result in military actions, worsening the situation in the sea.

When asked about the incident at a Feb. 6 news conference, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the ministry did not know the specifics and that the action was made independently by the military. The spokesman's statement was a rare acknowledgement that the civilian government may not fully control the Chinese military, triggering speculation over a possible rift between the military and political leadership. It is quite well known that the Chinese military has been increasingly vocal over the years and that hawkish elements within the People's Liberation Army have pushed for a more assertive stance in China's maritime sphere.

However, Beijing's implication that it is out of touch with its military arm is at the very least misleading. First of all, it is hard to imagine that the Communist Party would reveal such a critical fissure to the public if it truly did exist. Moreover, the Party is deeply intertwined with the military at almost all command levels. A systematic arrangement exists to ensure the Party's control over the military, with a considerable role played by political commissars, who often act as de facto seconds-in-command. The Communist Party also has not admonished Chinese military generals after previous inflammatory incidents, leading to the suspicion that Beijing condoned those actions. Furthermore, the Party retains control over the money that continues to fuel rapid Chinese military modernization and growth.

In truth, along with the increasingly provocative military actions in the East China Sea, the newly inaugurated political leadership has not hidden its intention to safeguard its maritime periphery. There is thus an alternative explanation. By distancing itself from military actions, Beijing gives itself the option to continue to apply political and diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries, Japan included, over the disputed waters. In the meantime, by appearing as though it cannot rein in the military, China can warn its neighbors, as well as the United States, that if they do not meet Beijing's demands diplomatically, it could lead the Chinese military to take action that the Foreign Ministry cannot control.

A military solution in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute is not the preferred option by either side. For one thing, the Japanese fleet's response to Chinese provocations has been relatively restrained. Beijing, despite its numerous provocations, has mostly relied on its civilian maritime agencies to push its territorial claims. Beijing had been quite successful over the years in enhancing its presence in the disputed waters in both the South and East China seas, taking advantage of its elaborate maritime surveillance agencies to assert its claims. The Chinese have also relied on enhanced exploration technology and measures that forced countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan to cooperate with China in the disputed waters

However, Beijing has demonstrated in a number of cases that it is increasingly willing to engage in brinksmanship to aggressively push its claims. This may be in part due to a need to focus its populace on an external threat at a time when the Communist Party feels pressured on the domestic front. But Beijing's strategy remains a risky one. Even if a shooting incident does not escalate into a disastrous war, China's increasingly assertive stance has already pushed a number of its neighbors closer to Washington, a trend that ultimately works against Beijing's maritime strategy.

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