Heading For Trouble In The East China Sea?

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China’s Intrusion Into Japan’s Senkaku Islands

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) always telegraphs its punches. But that doesn’t make them hurt any less or any easier to avoid.

Japan’s Sankei newspaper reports that Beijing has warned the Japanese government (GOJ) that many Chinese fishing boats may soon enter waters near the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands, that China also claims. The Chinese stated that Japan “is not entitled to demand” the boats cease their activities.

If the report is accurate, China is saying: “This is our territory…and we are going to prove it.” 

Japan’s latest Defense White Paper described Chinese activities in the East China Sea as a “relentless” attempt to change the status quo.

True enough, but China’s pressure on the Senkakus has been ongoing for eight years.  By moving slowly – in passive-aggressive fashion – the Chinese gave the GOJ a welcome excuse to avoid taking on the Chinese threat.  Tokyo could convince itself that the Chinese weren’t really serious – and might stop. 

Instead, it was enough to have Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) and Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ships shadow PLA Navy and Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships and Chinese fishing boats, while ASDF F-15’s intercepted intruding PLA Air Force planes. Meanwhile, Tokyo issued sternly worded statements.  

But the Chinese are now around the Senkakus in such numbers and for such lengths of time that it is wearing down the JSDF and undermining Japan’s claim to the islands.

Yes, the Japan Self Defense Force and JCG can respond to Chinese air and sea incursions, but they don’t have the resources to match the Chinese. Add in China’s huge fishing fleet and maritime militia (militarized fishing boats), and the Japanese rightly feel overwhelmed. The mismatch will widen as time passes.

At some point, Japan will face tough choices: use force to defend its territory – or lose it via ‘osmosis’ as the Chinese gradually swarm and absorb it. Or accept humiliating negotiations and keep some of what it owns (for a while). If they lose or negotiate away control of the Senkakus, then the rest of the Nansei Shoto (or Ryukyus) will be next.

Expect Beijing to announce before long that it has ‘administrative control’ over the Senkakus – as evidenced by its continual presence in the area.  China already makes life difficult for Japanese fishermen in the area. In early July, two CCG ships pursued a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkakus and ordered it out of Chinese waters. 

Beijing will point out that if the GOJ can’t protect its fishermen – and can’t do anything when a few hundred Chinese fishing boats show up near the Senkakus, how much administrative control does Tokyo really have?

Tokyo shouldn’t be surprised. In 2016 the PRC sent 200-300 fishing boats backed up by as many as 15 Coast Guard ships to swarm the Senkakus. According to some Chinese sources at the time, China reckoned it could assert ‘administrative control’ over the Senkakus anytime.  It was just sending a message while waiting for when the time was right.

Maybe the time is right?

Relations with Japan are frosty. Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, recently moved to withdraw Xi Jinping’s invitation to visit Japan. And the GOJ also created a $2 billion fund to move Japanese companies out of China, while also voicing concern over the PRC’s treatment of Hong Kong. The Japanese public is mostly negative on China – while blaming it for COVID-19. 

China is causing trouble on its periphery:  killing 20 Indian soldiers, threatening Taiwan, squatting in Indonesia fishing grounds, harassing Malaysian ships, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, and locking fire-control radar on a Philippine Navy ship.

And a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Navy ship off Shanghai a few months ago – perhaps intentionally.

Chinese pressure around the Senkakus is almost daring Japan to escalate. In fact, Beijing may hope the Japanese fire a shot – and thus give the PRC an excuse to play the aggrieved party in the East China Sea.

And don’t forget that the resentment-fueled CCP leadership is keen to teach the Japanese a lesson for perceived humiliations in the 20th and 19th centuries.   

Japan’s recent Defense White Paper – like previous versions – accurately describes the serious threats facing Japan.  But while the diagnosis is correct, the White Paper offers little in the way of cure.

At the end of the day, JSDF is still seriously underfunded.  It misses recruitment targets by 25% a year, and the Japanese Navy – that should play the leading role in East China Sea defense – lacks ship and personnel. And don’t forget that JSDF really cannot do joint operations – even though that shortcoming has been well known for many years.  So JSDF is not even the sum of its parts.

Defending Japan and its southern islands needs to be a joint Japan-U.S. effort. But except for the U.S. Navy and MSDF, Japanese and U.S. forces have limited capabilities for joint operations.  Even after 60 years of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty there is no joint headquarters where the two nations’ militaries coordinate and oversee the joint defense of Japan.

The commander of U.S. Forces Japan stated last week that the US will be helping Japan monitor the area around the Senkakus. That’s a start

Better hurry and begin joint air and naval exercises and patrolling in the East China Sea and near the Senkakus. And start using the two U.S.-controlled maritime firing ranges near the Senkakus that haven’t been used since the late 1970’s. Establishing a ‘Joint Task Force – Nansei Shoto’ with headquarters in Okinawa is another long-overdue idea.

What is coming ‘down south’ has been obvious for years. The Chinese have been clear about what they have in mind. But for some reason, Tokyo couldn’t bring itself to do much about it.   Neither could the Americans.

Time is running out.

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