Observers say that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a habit of “making mischief” on Jan. 11 each year. On Jan. 11, 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile, demonstrating its weapons capabilities, but disregarding safety in space.
In 2011, just as then-US secretary of defense Robert Gates was meeting then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in Beijing, the PLA announced the successful test flight of its J-20 stealth fighter. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), then the vice chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, was there to review the test flight.
Asked about the test flight at a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs news conference, spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said: “Ask the military.”
A Japanese observer said that the PLA had acted out of line with the central leadership.
The Japanese Ministry of Defense announced on Jan. 11 that one of its vessels had on Jan. 10 detected a submarine of unknown origin underwater inside Japan’s contiguous zone northeast of Miyako Island and heading toward China.
It said that the submarine entered the zone northeast of Taisho Island (Chihwei Island, 赤尾) and that a PLA Navy frigate was providing a surface escort.
Some commentators said the sub was following China’s aircraft carrier on its return leg after heading south through the Taiwan Strait on Jan. 4. However, that it happened on Jan. 11 suggests the sub’s passage through Japanese waters was planned to intimidate neighboring countries.
The sub might have been a new variant of the Type 093 nuclear-powered attack sub that can launch cruise missiles.
Some people think it surfaced to comply with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concerning the right of “innocent passage” of subs through territorial seas. However, the key point of “innocent passage” is that it concerns territorial seas.
In 2004, a PLA sub “mistakenly” passed submerged through Japan’s territorial waters east of Ishigaki Island, in contravention of the UNCLOS, but that was an exceptional incident.
PLA subs have subsequently avoided contravening the UNCLOS by skirting Japanese territorial waters without entering them. This happened twice in 2013 in the contiguous zone around Okinawa and again in 2014 in international waters near Tsushima in the Korea Strait.
The latest incident took place in the contiguous zone, where international law does not require a submarine to surface.
Other commentators have said the PLA might have been showing off its military capabilities. However, stealth and secrecy are key factors for a sub. For a sub to surface represents an admission of defeat.
In view of this, a more likely scenario is that the Type 093 was spotted illegally passing while submerged within Japan’s territorial waters and that Japanese military ships and planes forced it to surface. Some Japanese academics have suggested Taiwan was the source of this intelligence.
Whatever the case might be, it can be understood from this standoff that the US and Japan have ascertained the key parameters and acoustic signature of the PLA’s newest nuclear sub, and they might share this intelligence with the navies of Taiwan and other regional allies.
Nuclear-powered subs are strategic weapons that in China come under the direct command of the Central Military Commission.
Regardless of whether this incident was planned, perhaps to show off Xi’s military muscle, or a mishap, or a matter of inferior technology getting trumped by US and Japan, it still suggests the PLA’s chain of command is characterized by recklessness and a lack of self-restraint.
HoonTing is a political commentator.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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