Get used to PLA navy, says general

Protest by Tokyo is given short shrift

Minnie Chan and Julian Ryall in Tokyo
06 May 2010

China’s neighbours should get used to the presence of the Chinese navy in Asian waters, a retired People’s Liberation Army general said in response to Tokyo’s protest over a vessel chasing one of its surveying ships out of an area under dispute – which has caused an uproar in Japan.

“China’s long absence in its exclusive economic waters over the past decades was an abnormal historical accident and now it is just advancing to normal operations,” Xu Guangyu said in response to Japan’s protest over the latest incident earlier this week.

“We kept silent and tolerant over territory disputes with our neighbours in the past because our navy was incapable of defending our economic zones, but now the navy is able to carry out its task.”

Xu said the maturing of the Chinese navy was driven by its continuation of national interests abroad over the past decade, including its oil investments in Africa and energy transport route from the Middle East and Africa, as well as its duty to protect Chinese nationals.

“We have never expanded our territory or invaded other countries; we have just been protecting our national interests,” he said.

“The Chinese navy would not enter waters of Guam or the Strait of Malacca except to go through it for overseas missions such as anti-piracy or maritime trade.”

Tokyo reacted angrily to one of its oceanographic survey vessels being chased by a Chinese vessel on Monday and lodged a formal complaint with Beijing.

The incident occurred in the East China Sea about 320 kilometres northwest of Japan’s Amami Oshima Island. A Chinese vessel identified as the Haijian 51 allegedly interfered with the work of the Japanese ship the Shoyo, according to the Japanese coastguard.

Coastguard officials claimed the Chinese ship had chased the Shoyo for hours, demanding that it halt its research and leave China’s exclusive economic zone.

The exact line of the maritime boundary between China and Japan is in dispute – partly because of vast deposits of natural gas that are believed to lie beneath the seabed in the region – and never before had a Chinese vessel forced a Japanese ship to leave the area.

Coming so soon after a series of incidents involving the Chinese navy and their Japanese counterparts, there is concern that Tokyo is facing a more aggressive and determined policy in the region from Beijing.

“This is a surprise,” said Jun Okumura, a senior adviser with the Eurasia Group, adding that while he would have been inclined to write off incidents last month – the buzzing of a Japanese warship by Chinese navy helicopters and a fleet of 10 Chinese naval vessels found operating in international waters close to the islands of Okinawa – this latest confrontation raises the stakes.

“It is hard not to see a pattern now because this involves two different institutions of the Chinese government, the military and a civilian surveying vessel,” Jun said.

“It is even more surprising given that there is such an unprovocative regime in Japan at present.”

Some Japanese media outlets said the incidents “call into question the value of the diplomatic stance toward China taken by the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama”.

Some media also suggested that the failure of Hatoyama to take a stronger line with President Hu Jintao in Washington on April 12, after the first incident involving a Chinese helicopter approaching a Japanese vessel, may have emboldened the Chinese military.

Shanghai-based military observer Ni Lexiong said the navy’s aggressive attitude was also aimed at easing domestic conflicts. “The Chinese public prefers Beijing to be tough when dealing with all kinds of foreign affairs whenever our country is strong or weak,” Ni said. “The navy’s aggressive presence will help Beijing win more support from the public amid the current worsening social unrest.”

Zhang Yunling, professor of international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said both Beijing and Tokyo would not hype up the incidents.

“After all the time and effort Japan took in deciding to co-operate with China on northeastern Asia, they will not want bilateral ties to be spoilt by the incidents,” Zhang said.

“Even if Hatoyama were to meet Chinese leaders, these naval incidents would probably not be on top of his agenda.”

Japanese media reported that Hatoyama would visit the World Expo in Shanghai on June 12, designated by expo organisers as “Japan Day”.

Professor Liu Jiangyong, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations at Tsinghua University, said “these incidents were probably used by media and politicians in order to sway the government’s defence policies”.

Additional reporting by Kristine Kwok in Beijing

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