After days of speculation and a chase by Japanese destroyers and a surveillance plane, it has finally been determined that the nuclear submarine that intruded into Japanese territorial water between Okinawa and Taiwan was Chinese. The fact that the incident took place, and Beijing's response in its aftermath, give legitimate reason for its neighbors to feel alarmed.
It goes without saying that the Chinese submarine, which was spotted on Wednesday, intruded into a highly sensitive area. It's near a disputed gas field that Japan and China have wrangled over. But it is also only 300km southwest of Okinawa, where the majority of the 40,000 US troops stationed in Japan are located.
The Japanese government waited for two days before it openly declared that the intruding submarine was Chinese and asked for an apology. It is hard to believe that the Japanese government needed two whole days to determine the identity of the submarine. After all, it doesn't even take five fingers to count the countries that have nuclear submarines in the area and the required familiarity with the nearby waters. If it had been a US submarine, it would certainly have identified itself. So, after Russia had categorically denied that it was a Russian submarine, the only possible suspect left was China.
In all likelihood Japan hoped that Beijing would step up and claim that the entry into Japanese territorial waters was an accident. However, Beijing disappointed the well-intentioned Japanese government.
Even after the Japanese government openly identified the submarine as Chinese and demanded an apology, Beijing has continued to maintain an aloof stance. The state media in China has remained quiet by not even reporting about the incident. And when Chinese envoy Cheng Yonghua was asked for an explanation and an apology, Cheng refused, saying that his government was still investigating the matter. The likelihood that Beijing does not know by now that it was a Chinese submarine is about zero.
The arrogance of Beijing makes conceding such a mistake -- let alone making a formal apology -- extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. Moreover, the likelihood of the intrusion being an open provocation cannot be ruled out. At the very least, given the location where the submarine was spotted, the incident shows that China is actively and aggressively expanding the reach of its nuclear submarine activities. This is a sign which should rightfully worry all members of the region, not just Japan.
Ironically, as some Japanese media pointed out, Japan probably helped China fund the specific submarine that was chased out of Japanese territorial waters. After all, Japan has provided more than six trillion yen to the Chinese government over the years to aid development. Yet, in the face of such a powerful neighbor, Japan did not dare to take a strong position until it was certain that China was not about to come clean.
The incident also reveals the admirable capability of the Japanese navy and air force. The intruding Chinese submarine was almost immediately spotted and then became the target of a two-day chase by Japanese destroyers and a surveillance plane. Surely, if it was Beijing's intention to test the waters about how far it can go in provoking Japan, Beijing will think twice before pulling the same stunt again.