It was OK when the Lowy Interpreter got taken in by this bit of Yomiuri Shimbun rigamarole. No damage done. However, when The Economist's Banyan blog reprints it, then one has to get out the intellectual herbicide, lest the garden of knowledge get completely overrun.
The original source of the fable of the Chinese Navy taking over Japan's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean was a January 11, 2009 front page story in the Sankei Shimbun. January 11 was Seijin no Hi, a national holiday and a traditional slow news day. Someone at the Sankei decided to take a few conversations with unnamed mid-level bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense -- persons who have an incentive to invent threats, in order to justify the money we taxpayers are paying them -- dress up the result as leaks by unnamed persons "inside the government" that a serious likelihood exists of China taking over Japan's role in the Indian Ocean, supplying fuel to warships participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, and had a little fun.
So total was the ridiculousness of this idea, however, that not even the author of the piece could keep a straight face about it. Near the end of the article, there was an admission that the actual likelihood of Chinese ships refueling American ones was zero.
That is where is all should have ended. Unfortunately, as I noted here, the Yomiuri Shimbun seems to have lost all sense of shame since the Liberal Democratic Party's fall from power last year. The Yomiuri dressed up the Sankei's thinly-sourced bit of fun as fact, having not even the decency, as the Sankei had, to reveal that its "government sources" were in act, nobodies spouting irresponsible speculation.
The rest, as they say, is hysteria.
Later - Yes, it is demoralizing when a purportedly serious public intellectual like Takushoku University professor Morimoto Satoshi lends credence to this story by revealing his "fear" that China's "might" take over Japan's role.
Even later - Curiouser and curiouser. I could not find the online version of original Sankei Shimbun article because the title of the online version is completely unlike title of the printed version I read on January 11. On the other hand, the title of the original printed Sankei Shimbun article title is repeated nearly verbatim in the title of the Yomiuri Shimbun article that appeared five days later.
中国 引き継ぎ検討 (Sankei Shimbun, January 11)
インド洋での給油活動、中国が引き継ぎ検討 (Yomiuri Shimbun, January 16)
Cry plagiarism, Sankei Shimbun! Or at least bragging rights!