- By Alicia P.Q. WittmeyerAlicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
The Chinese government on Tuesday continued to deny that a Chinese frigate locked its radar on a Japanese destroyer earlier this year. The denial comes a day after Tokyo-based Kyodo News quoted unnamed "senior Chinese military officials" admitting for the first time that it happened — but only by accident, they said.
It’s worth noting, especially in light of Beijing’s official denial, that we don’t know who these Chinese officials are, or why they’re speaking up now. But the report, if true, is disturbing precisely because the alleged standoff happened accidentally. According to the officials, the radar lock was an unplanned, "emergency decision" taken by the commander of the frigate — one that did not include communication with fleet command or navy headquarters. This line in particular from Kyodo’s report does not inspire confidence:
"The communication system used by the Chinese navy is not as advanced as those of Japan and the United States, a senior official said, explaining why the commander did not seek guidance."
Great. At a time when Chinese authorities seem to be making efforts to dial down tensions with Japan over disputed islands, could a war between East Asian superpowers be sparked by accident — by some frigate commander gone rogue?
That nuclear war could come about in just such a scenario was, of course, a major concern during the Cold War. But decades of tension, as well as apocalyptic visions of global annihilation as a result of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. locking horns, produced carefully designed systems to minimize the damage any one rogue actor could inflict (only the president can access the nuclear codes), and to minimize misunderstandings from more minor incidents (the Kremlin-White House hotline).
But East Asia — relatively free of military buildup until recently — doesn’t have these same systems in place. A soon-to-be-released report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies highlights the danger that emerges when a region’s military systems develop faster than its communication mechanisms, and finds that accidental war in East Asia is a real possibility:
Across East Asia, advanced military systems such as anti-ship missiles, new submarines, advanced combat aircraft are proliferating in a region lacking security mechanisms that could defuse crises. Bilateral military-to-military ties are often only embryonic. There is a tangible risk of accidental conflict and escalation, particularly in the absence of a strong tradition of military confidence-building measures."
The Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute has been marked by an increasing number of deliberate provocations on both sides: surveillance vessels entering nearby waters, patrol planes making passes by the islands, scrambled fighter jets. These are planned actions, designed to incrementally heighten tensions. But the more fighter jets that get scrambled without good communications systems in place, the higher the chances that these deliberate moves escalate beyond what either Japan or China is anticipating.
That being said, it’s important to note that historians still question whether any wars have truly been started by accident. (War "is almost by definition a deliberate and carefully considered act," writes Michael Howard.) The origins of World War I — sometimes dubbed the accidental war — are still hotly debated, for example. But Reuters recently noted that China, while seeking to cool tensions with Japan, is at the same time taking steps to increase central control over its military (putting paramilitary agencies under a single command, for instance) to prevent accidents — a sign, at least, that one party in this conflict is taking the possibility seriously.