Japan suggests hotline to Beijing over island spat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 6:23pm

Japan has suggested setting up a military hotline with China to avoid clashes between the two countries, which are at loggerheads over a group of disputed islands, Tokyo’s defence minister said on Saturday.

The proposal came after Tokyo accused a Chinese frigate of locking its weapons-tracking radar on a Japanese destroyer - a claim Beijing has denied.

The incident, which Japan said happened last week, marked the first time the two nations’ navies have locked horns in a territorial dispute that provoked fears of armed conflict breaking out between the two.

The neighbours - also the world’s second and third-largest economies - have seen ties sour over the uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Tokyo and Diaoyu by Beijing, which also claims them.

“What’s important is to create a hotline, so that we would be able to communicate swiftly when this kind of incident happens,” Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.

He said Tokyo told Beijing on Thursday through its embassy in China that it wants to resume talks on creating a “seaborne communication mechanism” between military officials of both countries.

In 2010 China and Japan agreed to establish a hotline between political leaders following a series of naval incidents, but the plan has yet to materialise.

Defence officials of the two countries also agreed in 2011 to set up a military-to-military hotline by the end of last year, but the talks stalled due to heightened tensions over the territorial row.

Onodera also said Japan was considering disclosing evidence to bolster its accusation of the lock-on incident, after Beijing rejected the charge.

“We have evidence. The government is considering the extent of what can be disclosed”, because it includes confidential information on Japan’s defence capability, Onodera said.

The comments came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demanded Beijing apologise and admit the incident took place.

Tokyo has also charged that last month a Chinese frigate’s radar locked on to a Japanese helicopter, in a procedure known as “painting” that is a precursor to firing weaponry.

For both alleged incidents, on January 19 and January 30, China’s defence ministry said in a statement to AFP that the Chinese ship-board radar maintained normal operations and “fire-control radar was not used”.

Onodera said on Saturday that Japan could prove the frigate used a fire-control radar, instead of an early-warning radar that China insists was used as part of normal operations.

“An early-warning radar turns around repeatedly, while a fire-control radar keeps pointing to a moving ship that it targets at,” Onodera said.

“We have evidences that the radar followed after our ship for a certain period of time,” he said, adding that Japan recorded a radio frequency that is peculiar to a fire-control radar.

The long-running row over the islands intensified in September when Tokyo nationalised part of the chain, triggering fury in Beijing and huge anti-Japan demonstrations across China.

Beijing has repeatedly sent ships and aircraft near the islands and both sides have scrambled fighter jets, though there have been no clashes.

“Activities of Chinese official ships around Senkaku islands have calmed”, since Tuesday, when Japan disclosed the radar incident, Onodera said.

Abe, the hawkish Japanese premier, on Thursday called the incident “extremely regrettable”, “dangerous” and “provocative”, but also said dialogue must remain an option.