Official Washington seems to have taken little notice of sharply increased Chinese maritime activity around a group of islands in the southern Ryukyu chain called the Senkakus. The Senkaku Islands are rocky, windswept, almost uninhabited, and distant from Tokyo. Although the islands belong to Japan, Beijing has laid claim to them based upon a centuries-old – and vague – tributary relationship that existed between the “Loochoo” Islands and the Ch’ing Dynasty. Although the islands intermittently paid tribute to the Ch’ing emperors, China itself never occupied any of them.
So why are these islands now of such pressing interest to Mainland China?
The answer is simple: their location.
If Beijing can take control of the Senkakus, its predictable first step will be to fortify them and turn the largest of the group into a naval base. This has been China’s established pattern in the South China Sea, even with the artificial islands Beijing has built. The Senkakus will be no different.
But possession of the Senkakus presents Beijing with a valuable strategic advantage that none of the southern islands can offer. They outflank Taiwan, checkmate the American naval and air facilities on Okinawa, and provide direct access to the Pacific Ocean for Chinese submarines and surface vessels.
Beijing has long vowed to “reunite” Taiwan, putting an end to the rival nationalist government in Taipei. In many speeches, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders formerly used the phrase “peaceful reunification” as the means for bringing Taiwan under their control. Since 2019, however, their speeches have dropped that phrase and bluntly assert that the time has come for “reunification.” A naval base and airfields lying to the northeast of Taiwan – essentially “behind” Taiwan – would afford Beijing the military leverage needed to bring the Republic of China to its knees.
The strategic check-mating of the U.S. bases on Okinawa also is seen by Beijing as desirable. A fortified base in the Senkakus would complicate routine American operations in the East and South China Seas, and effectively prevent any American attempt to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a PRC invasion. A Chinese base in the Senkakus also would negatively affect the security interests of Japan and South Korea, giving Beijing a valuable political card to play with both Tokyo and Seoul.
Not least, as noted, a submarine base in the Senkakus opens the Pacific Ocean to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Eerily similar to the wide-ranging operations of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1942, the Chinese Navy could move freely from the South Pacific islands to the Gulf of Alaska. The U.S. Navy’s ability to track PLAN movements and operations would be stretched to the limit. It is even possible to envision Beijing’s request for PLAN basing rights in certain of the newly-independent Pacific countries.
The situation of the Senkakus also is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s 1938 demand for the Sudetenland to become part of the Reich. As is well known, the Western allies, hoping to buy “peace in our time,” gave way to Nazi demands and recognized Germany’s annexation of the territory – thereby fatally compromising Czechoslovakia’s ability to defend itself, undercutting Hitler’s domestic opponents, and paving the way for Nazi Germany’s further aggression.
Without overdrawing the lessons of Munich in 1938, giving way on the Senkakus dispute – handing over the islands to Beijing – will hobble American and Allied security interests, undercut Xi Jinping’s domestic opponents, and merely encourage Beijing’s aggressive tendencies.
Clearly, a line must be drawn that tells Beijing, “Thus far, and no further.”