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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (November 19, 2004)

Submarine incident strains Japan-China ties

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Just when it seemed that diplomatic relations between Japan and China might stabilize, a brief two-hour submarine incursion into a remote region of Japanese territorial waters has once again put the edgy neighbors at loggerheads. While last week's underwater trespass did not initially spark a high-profile diplomatic dispute, an angry reaction by Japan's right-wing press forced Tokyo to abandon its cautious diplomatic response. Media pressure railroaded the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi into ditching moderation for a hard line. The apparent policy shift to a tougher stance risks a further deterioration in already fraught Sino-Japanese ties and could jeopardizes a bilateral summit meeting planned for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Chile this weekend.

After rejecting Japan's protests and refusing to apologize for the intrusion, China on Tuesday finally expressed regret and said the submarine was on routine maneuvers and accidentally strayed into Japanese territorial waters. Japan interpreted that as an apology, according to chief government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda. Still, not everyone is convinced.

The latest bilateral flare-up began at about 5:40am last Wednesday when a mysterious submerged vessel entered the Pacific Ocean region of Japan's territorial waters in the southwestern sector of Okinawa prefecture, about 400 kilometers southwest of Okinawa island. The underwater vehicle slipped between the remote Miyako and Ishigaki islands at a speed of about 10 knots before returning to Chinese waters around 8am. The short intrusion was a relatively minor incident on the extreme fringe of Japanese territory. However, unlike the submarine in the famous Beatles song, when this one "sailed up to the sun", its mariners did not find "a life of ease" awaiting them.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) had apparently detected the submarine several days earlier as it cruised submerged near Japan's maritime border. The MSDF closely monitored its movements in case it strayed into Tokyo's sphere of jurisdiction, and when it crossed into the Japanese sector, the Defense Agency was immediately put on alert.

In accordance with standard procedures, Defense Agency director general Yoshinori Ono ordered the marine forces to pursue the submarine under Article 82 of the Self-Defense Forces Law. However, by the time the command was issued at 8:45am, the vessel had left Japanese waters. Tokyo followed the fleeing intruder using its P-3C Orion aircraft and two MSDF destroyers.

Having initially played down the relatively minor violation of its sovereignty, Tokyo was forced to take a more aggressive stance after bitter criticism from the right-wing press that usually supports the government. On Wednesday and Thursday, while Defense Agency officials declined to speculate about the submarine's country of origin, the press took the opposite approach. Newspapers strongly implied that the vessel must have been Chinese and there was harsh criticism of what was believed to be a slow and ineffective government response to the invasion of its marine space. Japan's best-selling daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, demanded a no-compromise policy. In its Thursday editorial it declared, "If the latest intrusion was indeed made by a Chinese submarine, it will clearly demonstrate that China is becoming a real threat to Japan in areas surrounding Japan."

With its supporters in the press baying for tough action, the government had little choice but to bow to their demands. Fearing being labeled as weak-kneed and indecisive toward China, the official script was rapidly rewritten. This was a calculated risk at a time of already strained dialogue with Beijing. However, with the issue of North Korea's past abduction of Japanese citizens on the verge of a spectacular fresh eruption, Koizumi probably gambled that any new bout of tension with China would be quickly overshadowed by the abductees.

And so last Friday, Tokyo took the chance of exacerbating diplomatic tensions by naming China as the culprit, even though the submarine did not surface and could not be formally identified. According to international law, a submarine can pass through the territorial waters of another country if it surfaces and hoists its national flag, identifying itself. That was not the case in this episode.

A grim-faced Cheng Yonghua, the second most senior official at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, was duly summoned to the Foreign Ministry. After joint discussions, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura resolutely told the media, "I strongly protested to the Chinese government and demanded an apology."

However, Beijing intially said it could not accept the protest or issue an apology as it had yet to determine whether the vessel belonged to its fleet, and it said investigations were ongoing. China's maritime capability is estimated to consist of about 740 naval vessels, including about 70 submarines. Despite Beijing's early refusal to acknowledge the vessel as Chinese, the Japanese government firmly maintained that the underwater intruder belonged to China.

Tokyo claimed it was able to determine that the submarine was Chinese as a result of analyzing various intelligence data. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Defense Agency chief Ono gave four reasons the government believed the vessel was Chinese:

    1) China and Russia are the only countries near Japan that possess nuclear submarines.
    2) The underwater vehicle leaving Japanese waters was on course for a Chinese naval base.
    3) It was operating in difficult-to-navigate shallow waters in the East China Sea, strongly suggesting that its crew was highly familiar with the underwater geography of the area.
    4) The noise profile of the submarine matched that of a Chinese vessel.

Japanese defense analysts point to four possible reasons for a deliberate incursion:

    1) To determine the outer limits of China's defense sphere and test Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force capabilities.
    2) To highlight China's claim to maritime resources along the mutual sea boundary.
    3) To practice for a possible sea blockade of Taiwan that might involve the areas around the Miyako Islands.
    4) To flex China's naval muscles by displaying its growing military strength.

However, some experts question whether the incursion was deliberate. They point out that if Beijing were probing Tokyo, why would it deploy what appears to have been a noisy old Han-class nuclear submarine, which is easier for Tokyo to detect than some of China's more advanced vessels? Furthermore, when the sub was detected, it did not appear to be hiding. It was cruising in shallow waters about 300 meters below the surface, making it relatively easy for the MSDF to locate.

The MSDF currently operates 80 P-3C aircraft, along with destroyers and SH-60 patrol helicopters, all of which give it a top-class submarine-detection capability. The P-3Cs are packed with advanced computer systems, sonobuoys and sub-locating radar. A combination of equipment is required as some parts of the East China Sea are relatively shallow at depths ranging from 40-200m. It is difficult for sonobuoys alone to track subs in shallow waters.

The weekend return of Tokyo's fact-finding mission from Pyongyang has now put the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea right back on center stage, completely eclipsing the submarine issue. This gives both Tokyo and Beijing an opportunity to tone down their rhetoric and engage in some fence-mending.

However, trying to determine the diplomatic fallout is proving harder than detecting the submarine. Beijing is tight-lipped, maintaining its line that it cannot comment as long as investigations are continuing. When such incidents have occurred in the past, and Tokyo has lodged protests, Beijing has more or less ignored them. With Japanese attention once again fully focused on the emotive North Korean abduction issue, the sonobuoy has been taken off Beijing.

However, since top-level exchanges between the two are extremely limited, largely because of Koizumi's repeated visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the war dead, including Class A war criminals, Beijing may decide to escalate the situation. This scenario is making Japanese diplomats uneasy.

The two countries have been working toward arranging a summit between Prime Minister Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the APEC forum this Saturday and Sunday in Chile. It was hoped that such a meeting might ease bilateral tensions. Perhaps, given China's regret, interpreted by Japan as apology, it will take place.

If the meeting is canceled, it would signal a further deterioration in bilateral relations, dramatically illustrating Hu's "hot economically, but cold politically" description of the current state of Sino-Japanese relations.

(This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 17 November 2004,, and is republished with permission. Copyright belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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