“Evacuate all Chinese people from Japan”: warning shots in the East China Sea, or just media war?

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[Updated 16 Jan 3.45pm BST]

On Tuesday afternoon the Chinese online media, led by Huanqiu Wang (Global Times Net), started reporting, “Japan official explicitly states for first time that warning shots will be fired at Chinese planes“.

HQW’s reporter Wang Huan 王欢 quoted the Asahi Shimbun website quoting Defense Minister Onodera, when asked about warning shots, replying that “any country would make this response if its airspace was intruded upon”.

Onodera’s comment may well have been coaxed out of him by reporters looking for a juicy headline, as it comes across as a contradiction of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s comment last week as reported by CNS (the other Xinhua) as reported by CNS that there were no plans for firing warning shots.

According to the Chinese internet media headlines that have relayed the story, Suga “denied” 否认 plans to fire warning shots, but now Onodera has “explicitly confirmed” 明确表态 that they will occur.

The news that Japan “will fire warning shots” was still the top splash on HQW’s website more than 12 hours later:

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Whether Onodera’s statement has been reported accurately or not, the result is that the Diaoyu ball game now rests with the PRC, and the party-state is playing on a big-time court with a packed house looking on.

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Presumably Xi Jinping would be directly overseeing a central response to a matter of such grave importance as the possibility of shots being fired over Diaoyu, though it’s probably impossible to know for sure. One would imagine he, as CMC Chairman, would have an opinion on whether to send the CMS/PLAAF/both instructions to:
1.) enter the Diaoyu/Senkaku 12nm zone; or
2.) stay out of the 12nm zone, or
3.) enter and proceed according to some contingency plan, e.g exit if warning shots are fired; or
4.) whatever other plans they may have and which I haven’t heard of or imagined, eg. “fly in there and take one for the great revival, son”.

There is, i guess, a small possibility that no central directions will be sent out from the PBSC under Xi. Perhaps the idea of the PLAAF flying to within 12nm of Diaoyu has already been discussed and discounted by the CMC. Perhaps the MFA will be left to coordinate a purely diplomatic response. But these seem unlikely.

Crucially, the reason the ball is so firmly in Xi’s court is not Onodera’s statement itself, but the reporting of it in Mainland China. It will be fascinating to see how the coverage pans out. The fact that the story was mentioned on CCTV’s evening news last night is an early indication that the PRC regime may be happy for attention to continue to mount over the question.

[UPDATE 16/1 2pm BST: the Global Times website is now describing the possibility of tracer bullets as Japanese media “hype” in its lead headline, though the story does not refute the significance of Onodera’s comment, rather focusing on the fact that he “didn’t specifically refer to China”.]

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The comments are plentiful on Tencent’s portal, the web version with 7,600+ comments in around 12 hours make that 8900+ in 14 hours — that’s 1300 comments in the past couple of hours, in the middle of the night. [UPDATE: Now, the following day it has 10,000+ comments from 177,000+ “participants”, making it the website’s third-most commented story of the week, and i’ve observed no censorship among the top comments since i tuned in.] Top comments from Tencent’s readers, known as a younger and less-educated demographic according to industry insiders:

Evacuate all Chinese people (华人) from Japan, seize all Japanese businesses in China, and out Level 1 state of war-preparation, prepare the people for war, amend the outdated nuclear policy, submarines do 2nd-strike preparations, and stop pointlessly gabbling with dogs, click on the right to support. [74,005 supports]

I somehow feel that China has gone into a diplomatic dead end, no friends, no allies, no foreign leaders visiting, and no-one going out and visiting other countries, while Japan and America’s diplomacy is blossoming, bearing huge fruits, and where are we? [24,650]

“China official explicitly states warning shots will be fired at Japanese planes” — this headline being sent out by the Chinese government would be great. [12,840]

To those still buying Japanese goods and cars, can you see the situation clearly now? Don’t be so goddamn blind! [11,383]

Over at Phoenix’s burnt-out shell of a comment zone, where heavy censorship seems to have led many readers not to bother commenting (that is, in the minority of cases where comments are even enabled), 89,000 “participants” was enough to put the story in 5th place for the week. Most of the top comments, predictably, are predicting war, with the #1 explicitly raising the General Staff Headquarters’ well-publicised exhortation in the PLA Daily on Monday to “make preparations to fight a war“. Comment #5 hit the nail on the head:

There is no dodging out of it now, let’s see how China deals with this Japan that will not back off. [6368]

All of this, the airborne actions taken thus far + internet media + Onodera’s comment + the HQSB editorials, could conceivably end up being the start of an uncontrollable escalation.

Because of the media attention, the Chinese leadership’s decision is going to be a very public one, and any backdown will require the party-state to use its huge discursive resources to deflect attention from the issue.

Hopefully the PRC will stay out of the 12nm zone, perhaps settling instead for a steady stream of non-shooting confrontations in Japan’s claimed Air Defense ID Zone, which extends far from Diaoyu and within which Japan has little grounds to actually take action against PRC jets. Perhaps that could, like the drumbeat of CMS and FLEC maritime patrols, end up being sufficient to sustain a basic narrative of continued PRC action.

But this time i actually do buy the Global Times’ argument that if shots were fired, the CCP regime would be compelled to retaliate. Unlike the GT, however, i wouldn’t attribute this to the Chinese public opinion alone. Shots fired in the Diaoyus would be a massive media event, and this in turn would significantly shape the Mainland Chinese public’s reaction.

Moreover, aside from the General Staff Headquarters’ “preparation” instruction, it appears that the duo of HQSB/Global Times editorials on Thursday and Friday last week, “Japan tracer bullets will bring war closer” and “Sendjng military planes to Diaoyu is following mainstream public sentiment” (aka “China ready for worst-case Diaoyu scenario”) have played a big part in bringing the situation to where it is now — awaiting a decision by “China” as to whether to back off by avoiding the 12nm zone, or go in and allow shots to be fired.

There is no chance of warning shots being fired and then kept under wraps. A hotline might have offered a way for the governments to collude at the last minute to cover it up…but no, that initiative was shelved in October.



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