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Hagel Feels the Heat in Beijing

Alex Wong/AP -  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan listen to the U.S. national anthem during a welcome ceremony at the Chinese Defense Ministry headquarters before their meeting Tuesday in Beijing.

Alex Wong/AP – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan listen to the U.S. national anthem during a welcome ceremony at the Chinese Defense Ministry headquarters before their meeting Tuesday in Beijing.

Japanese fighter jet pilots are getting no rest these days. In a statement released Wednesday, the Japanese Defense Ministry revealed that Japanese fighter jets were scrambled against Chinese planes a record high 415 times during the year ending in March. That number is up 36 percent from a year earlier – and is the highest number since the ministry started disclosing country-specific figures in 2001. The fighter jet scrambles are a result of conflicting claims over a group of tiny East China Sea islets administered by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing, as well as souring relations following Japan’s occupation of China before and during World War Two.

The figures were released by Japan the day after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Chinese military chiefs in Beijing, where Hagel traded warnings and rebukes over Beijing’s territorial disputes with its neighbors. After his speech before 150 Chinese officers at the National Defense University, an officer accused the U.S. of stirring up trouble in the East and South China Sea because it feared someday “China will be too big a challenge for the United States to cope with.” During Hagel’s subsequent meetings with top Chinese defense officials, China’s defense minister, General Chang Wanquan, blamed America’s allies — Japan and the Philippines — for the tensions, suggesting Washington needed to restrain its partners. Chang stated his hope the United States would keep Tokyo “within bounds and not be permissive,” while claiming “China has indisputable sovereignty” over the islands, for which “we will make no compromise.” Yet perhaps his most interesting comment, when taken in light of record Japanese fighter jet scrambles, was his comment: “It is Japan who is being provocative against China,” and his suggestion that China would not take pre-emptive action: “We will not take the initiative to stir up troubles.”

So does Chang’s recent declaration mean Japan can finally now rest its fighter jet pilots and that Hagel can stop losing sleep over Sino-Japanese confrontations in the East China Sea? Doubtful. Beijing probably did not deem it “provocative” when last July a Chinese Y-8 airborne early warning plane flew for the first time through international airspace near Japan’s southern islands over the Pacific and took the same route back over the East China Sea. Similarly, Beijing probably did not deem it “provocative” when its “coastguard” harassed Philippine vessels in late March which were attempting to resupply Filipino soldiers with food and water on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, an act which the U.S. State Department deemed provocative.

Maybe Beijing sees Japan’s purchase in September 2012 of the disputed islands called the Diaoyus by Chinese and the Senkakus by Japanese as the original initiative of provocation. The Japanese government claims it was forced to purchase the islands from private Japanese owners in order to keep them out of the hands of the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who was also trying to purchase the uninhabited islands. Perhaps Beijing believes that since the Japanese have already taken the initiative to stir up trouble, any subsequent action by China is justified. What is clear is that any further initiative taken by Japan will result in a Chinese face-saving response. Such Japanese initiatives, as defined by Beijing, could include joint war exercises with the U.S. military, the selling of Japanese military equipment to regional allies, Japanese violations of China’s newly created air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, or even visits by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Despite the lack of agreement, Hagel’s visit to Beijing was important for the frank disclosing of divergent positions, in contrast to the deferential reception given to his predecessor Leon Panetta at a similar event two years ago. The Chinese side were able to hear first-hand from the U.S. Secretary of Defense of his commitment to defend its mutual self-defense treaty allies in the region, and Hagel got an earful of China’s fear of containment and its hardened determination to reclaim what it deems lost territory. So despite the reassurances by Hagel that the U.S. does not seek to contain China and the dovish comments coming out of Beijing, we can expect those Japanese fighter pilots will not be getting rest anytime soon.



Gary Sands
Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]