China’s Senkaku Incursion in Perspective: Byproducts of a Dysfunctional System
November 1, 2016
The unprecedented entry of a Chinese naval vessel into the seas around the Senkaku Islands last June elicited a raft of conflicting analyses, some of them highly alarming. International relations expert Ichiro Inoue reexamines the incident and its implications in the context of China’s foreign-policy decision-making process.
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On June this year, a Chinese navy frigate entered the contiguous zone around the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea. China has a history of sending its Coast Guard vessels to waters around the Senkakus as part of an ongoing effort to undermine Japan’s claim of effective control of the islands. However, this was the first time a Chinese warship had entered the seas around the Senkakus. The Japanese government responded by summoning the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo at 2:00 am to lodge a protest.
Most China watchers in the media and the academic community have long since had their say on the incident, which occurred several months ago. But the analyses and comments offered in the immediate wake of the affair muddied the waters with a wide range of theories, and there has been little progress since then in gravitating toward a widely accepted conclusion, much less reaching a consensus. Focusing on the timing of the incursion, for example, some analysts posited a connection with the May 26–27 Group of Seven Ise-Shima summit, while others linked it, even less plausibly, to President Xi Jinping’s birthday.
In short, while the incident may seem like old news by now, it raises important questions to which our experts and pundits have yet to provide a coherent answer. For this reason, I believe it is worth reexamining the affair in a broader perspective in an effort to shed light on the forces driving such a breach of precedent.
A Deductive Approach
Given the opacity of China’s decision-making mechanisms and the particularly thick veil of secrecy surrounding its military, no one on the outside can claim with any certainty to understand the intentions underlying the June incident. But I believe we can and must narrow down the range of plausible interpretations by objectively examining the situation in all its aspects and making logical deductions on the basis of the information at our disposal. One important category of information in this connection is our accumulated knowledge regarding China’s foreign-policy decision-making process. Of course, generalizations and extrapolations from known facts do not guarantee a correct interpretation in any specific instance. Information that comes to light farther down the line may reveal that something atypical occurred this time around. But in that case, we will be able to characterize it as an outlier, and treat it accordingly.
Let us begin, then, by laying out the key questions that need to be asked in relation to the June incident.
The first question is obvious. China had thus far refrained from sending naval vessels (as opposed to Coast Guard patrol boats) into the waters around the Senkaku Islands. Why, then, did a naval frigate enter the contiguous zone on this occasion? Does the action represent a basic change in Beijing’s policy toward Japan and the Senkakus?
At least as important is how and if the movements of the Chinese warship were connected to those of the three Russian naval vessels that entered the contiguous zone around the same time, tracked by Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol ships. Does the simultaneous presence of Chinese and Russian naval vessels in the area indicate some coordination between Beijing and Moscow on the territorial issue? Or was the Chinese ship merely reacting to the movement of the Russian and Japanese naval vessels into waters that China claims as its own? And if the latter is the case, was it the Russian or the Japanese ships that provoked the Chinese reaction?
This brings us to a question that comes up each time a Chinese provocation of this sort occurs: Where along the chain of command did the decision to act take place? Was this a rogue action by one ship’s commander? Or did it take place with the foreknowledge and approval of top Chinese leaders, including even Xi Jinping? Did China’s Foreign Ministry know what was taking place? Did the ambassador to Japan?
With regard to the incident’s timing, we need to look at a number of potentially related developments occurring around the same time. These include the movements of a Chinese reconnaissance vessel that sailed into Japanese territorial waters near Kuchinoerabu Island (off of Kagoshima Prefecture) on June 15 and was subsequently observed in the contiguous zone near Kitadaito Island (Okinawa Prefecture) on June 16; a sharp increase in patrols by Chinese Coast Guard vessels around the Senkakus since last March; and the recent spike in encounters between Chinese and Japanese military aircraft in the East China Sea. How might such developments relate to the June 7 incident in which a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a US reconnaissance aircraft over international waters in the East China Sea?
Is there a connection between the June incursion near the Senkakus and international tensions over China’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea? Was the move a premeditated gesture of defiance toward the United States, which has challenged those claims with its “freedom of navigation” patrols? Or was it, as others suggest, a retaliatory response to Tokyo’s position on China’s maritime policy in that region? Why, in either case, would Beijing deliberately embark on a course of action that seems calculated to provoke tensions with Japan at a time when it finds itself increasingly isolated from the international community as a result of its stance on sweeping Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea?
In the following I hope to propose some plausible answers to these questions through deductive reasoning based on an objective review and analysis of the situation.
The Mirror Image Trap
A common pitfall when it comes to analyzing the behavior of other countries is the “mirror-image fallacy”—the assumption that others are driven by the same logic, emotions, and considerations that motivate us. The error derives from a failure to appreciate the impact of different cultural, social, philosophical, and political systems.
A country’s foreign policy is affected by the structure of its decision-making apparatus, and China and Japan differ significantly in this respect, as well as in their basic worldview. Although China’s foreign-policy decision-making process remains opaque in many respects, most experts agree that it is severely fragmented as a result of sectionalism between competing policy-making and decision-making entities within the Communist Party of China, the State Council, and the military establishment. In addition, bureaucratic bloat, a legacy of socialism, makes it difficult and time-consuming to reconcile competing interests in each of these branches. The bloated and complex organization of China’s government, party, and military apparatuses also magnifies the distance between the top decision makers and those who implement policy on the ground, while fostering an organizational culture in which top leaders are treated with exaggerated reverence. 
The military’s basic policy-making entity is the Central Military Commission, a party and government organ outside the internal governance structure of the People’s Liberation Army. Deliberations on security policy pass from the Central Military Commission to the CPC’s Politburo, China’s top policy-making body. In recent years, the Politburo has reserved 2 of its 25 positions for senior military officials but none for members of the Foreign Ministry or other representatives of the foreign-affairs community. This organizational structure makes it very difficult for the Foreign Ministry to exert an impact on policy areas that the military has staked out as its own—even when they clearly intersect with diplomatic affairs. On the other hand, the Foreign Ministry is often called on to intervene diplomatically—after the fact—when a decision made without its approval leads to serious problems. 
China also has various supra-ministerial policy coordination and consultation bodies, but the function and impact of these entities is by no means clear. The Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group is a long-standing body established to exercise oversight on foreign policy matters. The National Security Leading Small Group, established in 2000, shares the same office and appears to be identical in makeup (“one body, two signboards”). However, these entities are not permanent administrative bodies but merely conferences of high-ranking (ministerial level) government officials, who gather on an ad hoc basis to coordinate on specific issues as they arise. They are equipped to react to crises that have already emerged, not to formulate policy proactively. 
In 2013, after President Xi Jinping took office, the government established an even higher-ranking entity for decision making on matters of national security: the Central National Security Commission, chaired by the General Secretary of the Communist Party (Xi Jinping) and vice-chaired by the second- and third-ranking officials of the CPC. But there is no sense of a permanent working-level organization supporting these leaders in their decisions. Thus, while the NSC may have elevated policy coordination and decision making to a higher level, it seems unlikely to enhance China’s capacity for proactively heading off conflicts or preventing their escalation.
In Japan, each of the key cabinet agencies, including the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, seconds high-level officials to the Prime Minister’s Office, and these “executive secretaries” and their staffs are on hand at all times to inform and advise the prime minister. Offices of the president and the premier to provide support functions similar to executive secretaries in Japan existed during the regime of Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping, too, has such an office. However, the aides stationed in Xi Jinping’s office (though doubtless high in party rank) are not senior military officers or foreign policy officials. Although one assumes some system exists for conveying information on security and foreign policy directly to the nation’s top leader, there is no permanent institutional mechanism, as in Japan. Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely that the head of state has swift, uninterrupted access to the latest information on foreign policy and security developments.
China also lacks a system for lower-level coordination and fine-tuning of military and diplomatic policy. In Japan, the Ministry of Defense seconds Self-Defense Forces officers to serve in key departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and these desk officers play a pivotal role in liaison and coordination between the two communities in areas where their interests intersect. This facilitates inter-agency coordination near the ground at the early stages of a crisis and helps prevent the escalation of conflicts. Although China assigns military attachés to its embassies and other foreign missions, it does not appear to have a domestic mechanism comparable to Japan’s.
All told, China’s policy coordination on matters pertaining to foreign relations (inclusive of both diplomacy and security) tends to be reactive, kicking in only when a problem reaches a crisis level. Where Japan and the United States are concerned, the situation is exacerbated by Beijing’s tendency toward stubborn intransigence. Of course, if a problem continues to escalate, high-level officials from various ministries and committees, including the party’s top leadership, will meet and pass down a decision, but the kind of sweeping policy decisions made at this level inevitably leave plenty of room for interpretation at the tactical level.  Each time the top leadership adopts a basic policy direction, individual departments down the chain of command tend to overreact in crafting their own policies to match, and petty officials outdo one another in their zeal to implement them. Structurally, the system is not conducive to the ongoing adjustment of policies to prevent conflict.
Structurally speaking, the military enjoys a high degree of independence with respect to policy making, and within the party apparatus, senior military officers invariably outrank top Foreign Ministry officials. This makes the reconciliation of policy differences between the military and the Foreign Ministry a particularly difficult challenge. Let us suppose that the government’s foreign-affairs experts concluded that current policy in the South China and East China Seas was isolating China internationally, and that some shift or adjustment was in order. It would take considerable time, and probably some major outside impetus, to alter the thinking of China’s senior military officers and commanders and change the way they actually operated in the field. This assumes, of course, that said foreign policy experts could enlist the active support of the party’s top leadership, which has grown increasingly preoccupied with domestic issues and proportionately insensitive to the reaction of the international community.
In Japan, where foreign-policy decision making is considerably more efficient and compact, there is a tendency to ask questions like “What are China’s intentions?” or “What does Xi Jinping want?” on the assumption that the government of China, like that of Japan, actually has a unified foreign policy and is working as a team to achieve coherent goals consistent with the national interest. This fallacy is all too common in scholarly analyses of security issues, such as those treating the naval incursions of last June, in part because most scholars in international relations have been trained to treat nation-states as rational unitary actors.
Amid the negative sentiment and tension dominating Japan-China relations over the past few years, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that China even now has highly qualified, conscientious experts—not just independent researchers but also members of the government—who are able to analyze international affairs objectively and who seek a more cooperative relationship between China and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, experts of this persuasion are apt to fall silent when international tensions are running high. This is a key difference between China and a fundamentally democratic nation like the United States, where experts and pundits feel free to dissent openly from the government’s current foreign policy, sometimes igniting a major public controversy and providing the impetus for a course correction when current policy proves unsuccessful.
China and Russia in Cahoots?
To return to the June incident, one of the noteworthy aspects of China’s incursion was that it occurred right around the time that three Russian naval ships sailed into the contiguous zone around the Senkakus followed by MSDF patrol ships. These circumstances immediately raised the question of whether China and Russia were engaging in a coordinated operation. According to a June 15 report in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun , the website of the Russian embassy in Tokyo posted a statement denying any such collusion, but soon removed it. The Chinese state media subsequently carried a number of commentaries and analyses that seemed calculated to fuel Japanese suspicions of coordination between China and Russia. In addition, Japanese analysts have cited anonymous statements from “well-placed Chinese sources” in support of such a link.
Such statements need to be approached with considerable skepticism. Information from anonymous Chinese sources, including scholars and government figures, are notoriously unreliable. When it comes to military operations, the testimony of an acquaintance in the military or the Foreign Ministry is of little value unless that person was part of the decision-making process or is in charge of a section directly involved. Those who are really in a position to know are not in the habit of communicating with foreign analysts, pundits, or reporters, let alone divulging state secrets. Meanwhile, those who are not in the loop are often reluctant to admit their ignorance. The fact is that the “informed” Chinese sources that Japanese analysts are wont to cite have a history of passing on bad or incomplete information, whether out of an impulse to exaggerate their own knowledge or out of a deliberate intent to mislead. We should not take anonymous statements by Chinese government or military figures at face value.
It is true that the defense ministers of China and Russia, meeting in April 2016, agreed to deepen military cooperation and increase the number of joint military exercises in 2016, and this has contributed to speculation that the incursions by Chinese and Russian ships were linked. But coordination on the Senkakus would signal a major strategic policy shift by Russia, which has thus far taken a neutral position on the territorial dispute. Such a shift would require more than an agreement between defense officials. It would entail major decisions by, and agreements between, the top-ranking civilian officials of both governments, including their foreign ministers and heads of state. If Russia and China have in fact embraced such a shift in policy, then this is a serious development indeed, and Japan will have to carefully rethink its own strategy. But on a matter such as this, in which Japan is a key stakeholder, it can be safely assumed that the Japanese government, with its advanced surveillance and analysis capabilities, has access to far more and better information than any single independent observer.
Using the foregoing analysis to narrow the range of possibilities, let us once again ask why China would break with its longstanding policy of not sending warships into the area contiguous to the Senkaku Islands. Was the move, as some have opined, a deliberate policy shift in response to Japan’s opposition to China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea? In other words, did Beijing make a considered decision to use the navy—specifically, movements around the Senkakus in the East China Sea—to express its diplomatic displeasure with Tokyo’s position vis-à-vis the South China Sea?
As noted above, such a policy shift could not take place at the sole discretion of the military but would require close consultation between a country’s foreign policy and military strategists. And given the vertically fragmented character of China’s foreign-policy decision-making apparatus, one may well question the probability of such seamless, coordinated policy adjustment in response to recent events.
That said, the June incursion near the Senkakus is broadly consistent with China’s maritime behavior in the wider region over the past six months. In addition to the series of events mentioned earlier, we might note the May incident in which two Chinese military aircraft intercepted a US military reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, as well as the military exercises conducted in the waters near the Paracel Islands in early July.
On July 12, meanwhile, an international tribunal in The Hague, ruling on a case brought by the Philippines, rejected China’s claims to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, declaring them to be without legal basis. Despite this clear international rebuke, China has given no sign, at least publicly, of softening its tough stance or modifying its hardline tactics. Such intransigence in the face of strong international headwinds—by no means limited to disputes involving Japan—reflects a domestic political environment that has made it extremely risky for Beijing to adopt a conciliatory approach in this area of foreign policy.
The Chinese government’s swift release of a “white paper” refuting the ruling of the Hague tribune indicates that Beijing had anticipated an unfavorable outcome and had prepared its hardline response in advance. It would appear from this that China’s top leaders had already agreed on a basic policy of standing firm on maritime territorial issues, regardless of international criticism. And as we have seen, when China’s top leaders lay out a broad policy, it sets off a chain reaction of policies by each subordinate agency.
With all of this in mind, I would suggest that the June incident around the Senkakus was initiated neither by a field officer acting on his own discretion or by any direct order or concrete policy originating at the top. The most likely explanation, rather, is that Beijing’s top leaders reached a consensus to toughen the government’s public stance on maritime sovereignty issues, and China’s military tacticians and commanders applied that basic policy as they deemed fit. In any case, it is safe to assume that the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo was in the dark—at least until he was awakened at two o’clock in the morning.
1. See Richard Bush, The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations (Brookings Institution Press, 2010), pp. 138–70.
2. See Thomas J. Christensen, “More Actors, Less Coordination? New Challenge for the Leaders of a Rising China,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., China’s Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made? (Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 2012), pp. 35–36.
3. See Yun Sun, “Chinese National Security Decision-Making: Processes and Challenges,” Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies Working Paper, May 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/chinese-national-security-decisionmaking-sun-paper.pdf , pp. 10–12.
4. See Lu Ning, The Dynamics of Foreign-Policy Decision Making in China (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), p. 40.