So China is accusing Japan of ‘dangerous provocation’ over its alleged monitoring of Chinese naval exercises in the Western Pacific. 

Amid the prolonged tensions between the two North Asian powers, this is a new twist. In the past, it has typically been Japan accusing China of perilous maritime surveillance or targeting activities, such as helicopters ‘buzzing’ Japanese ships at close range or locking-on with fire-control radar

Asian security-watchers have warned of the risks of unintended conflict arising from incidents at sea. After years of finger-pointing at China on this score, it looks like the Chinese are trying to turn the tables and blame Tokyo for whatever may ensue.

But there’s some context to this latest episode that undermines China’s supposed moral high ground.

It’s no surprise that Tokyo would want to keep a close watch on this particular Chinese exercise. Its nature, its location and even its navigational course appear custom-made to stoke Japanese anxieties about China’s military capabilities and intentions. According to an officially-sanctioned account presented on the Chinese Defence Ministry website, the 'Manoeuvre 5' maritime exercise is the first time units from all three major Chinese fleets have converged for simulated conflict.

The PLA Navy has made a point of holding the exercise in the western Pacific, apparently somewhere south of Honshu, as part of a deliberate demonstration of its ability to 'dismember' the so-called 'first island chain' (which includes Japan and Taiwan). The account further declares:

...the location of the exercise is one of the most sensitive sea areas with the most potential conflicts. The PLAN must be prepared for any unexpected combat operation in such an area.

And just so there’s no doubt in Japanese, Taiwanese or American minds, the account goes on to celebrate 'the three major fleets’ passing simultaneously through the Bashi Channel, the Osumi Strait and the Miyako Strait'. The first of these skirts Taiwan, and the others – although legitimate international sealanes — cut between Japanese islands.

Of course China has the right to train its navy in international waters and can point to any number of US exercises in the western Pacific over the years. Moreover, China will no doubt claim a defensive element to its increasingly ambitious naval exercises, arguing that this is all about countering a prospective blockade strategy by the US and its allies.

But amid all the recent confrontational rhetoric in Tokyo and Beijing, the PLA Navy wargames and their provocative packaging suggest that cooling things down is not China’s highest priority.

The Lowy Institute’s research on maritime security tensions in Indo-Pacific Asia is supported by a grant from the John T and Catherine D MacArthur Foundation.