China Conflicted Over Anti-Japan Protests

Posted on August 20, 2012


Protesters march in a rally demanding Japan give up claims to the disputed Senkaku Islands, in Chengdu, in southwest China’s Sichuan province, August 19, 2012.

Popular Chinese websites on Monday ran photos from anti-Japan protests across the nation, showing images of flipped-over and smashed Japanese-model cars in apparent reaction to a China-Japan dispute over a clutch of rocky islands.

But in a country where deep-seated mistrust of Japan is apparent even in China’s most cosmopolitan cities, an unusual number of voices both online and in state-run media argued that protesters from Shenzhen to Shenyang went too far.

“This type of “patriotism” will never receive applause,” read a front-page editorial in the party-backed China Youth Daily. “It will only make true patriots feel ashamed.”

Video posted online showed dozens of people in the southern city of Shenzhen attacking and eventually flipping over a Japanese-made police car. The video shows one man, clutching a Chinese flag, dancing atop a flipped vehicle as crowds cheered him on.

“I hate Japan, but those compatriots in these anti-Japan protests are sick,” wrote Weibo user on Monday.

“No matter if the Japanese occupy the Diaoyu islands, if you are smashing Chinese people’s cars on Chinese land or capturing and beating up a Japanese person, these actions are all illegal,” wrote another user.

Renewed anti-Japanese sentiment boiled over the weekend after a group of Japanese activists successfully landed on the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. The islands are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu. Taiwan claims the islands as well.

Sovereignty over the islands is economically and strategically important because the area serves as important fishing grounds and holds potentially valuable oil and natural gas reserves.

Some online users stepped-up calls for a boycott of Japanese products on Monday. One photo posted on Weibo showed a sign posted outside a gas station refusing Japanese cars’ entry. The photo’s authenticity couldn’t be independently verified.

Chinese media meanwhile kept up calls for solidarity over the Senkaku. Nationalist rhetoric in mainstream media comes as growing numbers of Chinese are calling for Foreign Ministry officials and other government leaders to act more assertively on territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, among other issues.

“The national strength of China, as long as its growth continues, will become the bargaining chips that force Japan to back off,” the Global Times, a popular tabloid with nationalist leanings, wrote in an editorial in its English edition on Monday. “The reluctance to resort to military means doesn’t mean China is afraid of war.”

Brian Spegele

China Protests Erupt Over Island Dispute With Japan

People hold placards and shout slogans as they attend a rally to protest against Japan’s claim of islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in Hangzhou, east China’s Zhejiang province on August 19, 2012. Photograph: STR/AFP/GettyImages

Protests erupted in China and Hong Kong over the weekend as Japanese activists landed on an island in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, intensifying a dispute between Asia’s two biggest economies.

Demonstrations yesterday in more than 10 Chinese cities featured calls for a boycott of Japanese goods, the state-run China Youth Daily said today. Japan asked the Chinese government to protect its citizens living in China, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said.

“Japanese moving around China should be aware of their surroundings and demonstrations in their area,” Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo. China Daily said the protests of varying size in cities including Beijing, Qingdao, Guangzhou and Shenzhen were mostly peaceful and the newspaper urged people to be “rational” and not violent.

The Japanese mission came days after a group of mostly Hong Kong activists were arrested and deported for visiting one of the islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Sovereignty of the area gives the holder control of undersea natural gas and oil fields and the two countries signed a joint development agreement in 2008 that has yet to be implemented.

The dispute has soured ties at a time when Japan is mired in a similar row with South Korea, while China is embroiled in spats with Vietnam and the Philippines over the oil-rich South China Sea. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara in April said his government is seeking to buy the uninhabited chain from a private Japanese owner, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in July said the national government may do so, drawing China’s condemnation.

Sovereign Territory
Purchasing the islands “lays down a marker that will leave no ambiguities on what is Japanese sovereign territory,” said Carlyle Thayer, a professor emeritus at the Australian Defense Force Academy, University of New South Wales. “One of the most important foreign policy issues facing Japan is China’s rise and growing assertiveness.”

Japanese and U.S. military officials will meet on Aug. 23 in Washington to discuss strengthening maritime defenses around outlying islands, the Nikkei newspaper reported yesterday. The talks will in part consider China’s expansion of sea power, it said. Japan will also replace its ambassador to China after he criticized the proposal to purchase the islands, the Yomiuri newspaper said, without citing anyone.

Pushing back against China has its risks, as Japan found in 2010 when its Coast Guard clashed with a Chinese trawler in the disputed waters and arrested the captain. That sparked a diplomatic standoff, souring relations for months. China restricted supplies of rare-earth minerals used in the manufacture of electronic goods and hybrid cars, according to Japan’s government.

Street Protests
Japan should immediately stop actions that undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement on its website yesterday.

Chinese protesters took to the streets yesterday in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shenyang, Hangzhou, Harbin and Qingdao, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Before 9 a.m., more than 100 people had gathered near Japan’s consulate in Guangzhou, the capital of southern Guangdong province, Xinhua said. In Shenzhen, protesters overturned Japanese cars, including police vehicles, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper reported on its website.

In Hong Kong, hundreds of people marched in a protest organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

“Japan is very bad, China is very good,” said a 70-year- old retiree clutching a miniature Chinese flag and who would only gave his first name as Nelson. “We protest against Japan entering our land.”

Mannequins Trampled
Demonstrators trampled on miniature mannequins of Japanese soldiers dressed in World War II uniforms while the crowd chanted “Diaoyu belongs to China. Get rid of Japanese militarism.”

Growing public anger over the Diaoyu group shows the pressure on Chinese leaders to take action, according to commentaries carried in Hong Kong papers.

“China’s constant forbearance towards Japan’s actions in the Diaoyu Islands is no longer accepted by its people,” the Ming Pao newspaper said, according to a translation on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s monitoring service.

The Chinese government had brought national humiliation by surrendering territory, while at the same time repressing its own people, Koo Sze-yiu, one of the 14 activists deported by Japan, told the South China Morning Post in an Aug. 18. article.

Given previous attempts by the Hong Kong group to sail to the islands were blocked by local authorities, it seems last week’s successful attempt had the backing of the central government, Zhou Yongsheng, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told the paper.

Rival Flags
The 10 Japanese activists were part of a group of about 150 that sailed from Okinawa prefecture and television footage showed them raising the Japanese flag. The Chinese group that arrived on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 that ended World War II, planted both Chinese and Taiwan flags.

The 10 people swam back to their boats after two hours, a Japanese Coast Guard official, who declined to be identified citing official policy, said by phone.

Fujimura today said that while the landing was “regrettable,” China’s position was untenable.

“Historically and as a matter of international law, the Senkaku islands are our country’s territory,” he said.

Telephone calls to Ganbare Nippon, the organizer of the visit, were unanswered.

China claims the islands were unjustly handed back to Japan after the U.S. ended its postwar occupation of Okinawa in the early 1970s. Taiwan also claims them.

Korea Dispute
Territorial disputes are also undermining attempts by the U.S. to replace bipartite alliances with Japan and South Korea with a three-way regional alliance, Thayer said.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak reignited rancor with Japan on Aug. 10 when he visited islets in the Sea of Japan.

Both nations claim the Liancourt Rocks, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, which lie 87 kilometers (54 miles) east of the closest South Korean territory and 158 kilometers from the nearest Japanese land.

Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea in protest after Lee’s trip.


Chinese, Japanese activists up stakes in escalating regional dispute over islands’ ownership

TOKYO — When Tokyo’s nationalist governor suggested buying uninhabited islands at the center of a long-simmering dispute with China, Beijing immediately denounced him and even Japan’s government played down the plan, fearing an international firestorm.

Now activists on both sides have put the islands front-and-center in one of the biggest territorial flare-ups between the two Asian giants in years, a collision of the persistent animosities over Japan’s imperialist past and the new fears of China’s rising economic and military clout.

An unauthorized landing by Japanese activists on a tiny island in what the Japanese call the Senkaku chain — and the Chinese call the Diaoyu — has sparked an outpouring of anger and anti-Japanese protests across China and fueled calls for aggressive government action that some fear could lead to a dangerous escalation of tensions.

Japanese authorities on Monday questioned the 10 Japanese, including Tokyo city assembly members, who swam ashore on the disputed island the day before. News of the landing prompted thousands of Chinese to hold demonstrations in 10 cities, where protesters sang the Chinese national anthem or carried banners demanding Japan give up the islands.

Some vandals targeted Japanese-brand cars.

“Nationalist activists on both sides are working to exploit this issue for their own ends,” said Shinji Kojima, a professor emeritus of Chinese history at Tokyo University. “If both governments aren’t careful it could lead to a more serious conflict.”

The Japan-China tensions are playing out against a backdrop of heightened concern over China’s increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes across the south and east China seas. In July, Beijing announced that a South China Sea military garrison on a remote island was being proclaimed a city, underlining its claims to own the entire, potentially oil-rich region, which is disputed by many of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Japan’s chief Cabinet spokesman, Osamu Fujimura, called this weekend’s island landing “regrettable” because it was done without government approval. He also said it was an internal matter and China has no right to complain.

“These islands are our territory,” he said.

The landing was the latest in a series of moves by Chinese and Japanese activists since April, when Tokyo’s influential governor, Shintaro Ishihara, announced a plan to use public funds to buy several of the isles from a private Japanese citizen whom Japan says has legal ownership.

Within weeks, Tokyo received more than 1 billion yen ($12 million) in donations for the purchase, which is expected to cost between 2 and 3 billion yen.

Ishihara acknowledged the move was largely intended to put pressure on the national government to play a bigger role in the islands’ administration. He is now pushing the envelope even further by seeking permission from the central government to send a team of experts there to study development possibilities and environmental issues.

Fujimura on Monday said Japan is considering the proposal, though sending a government-approved mission would likely infuriate Beijing.

The moves by Ishihara have been repeatedly slammed by the Chinese government and media.

Just days before the Japanese group’s landing, five Chinese activists went ashore on the island on Aug. 15 — the anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender. The five and nine others were arrested and quickly deported back to Hong Kong.

The islands, also claimed by Taiwan, are important mainly because of their location, which is near key sea lanes. They are surrounded in the East China Sea by rich fishing grounds and as-yet untapped underwater natural resources.

Japan annexed them in 1895, saying no other nation exercised a formal claim. The islands, lying roughly midway between Okinawa and Taiwan, were administered by the United States after World War II until they were returned to Tokyo in 1972.

The conflicting claims have repeatedly flared up in the past, only to quiet down again. Two years ago, relations between China and Japan were soured by the arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing ship that collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel after refusing to leave the region.

By quickly sending the Chinese activists back to Hong Kong, Japan appeared this time to be trying to tamp down the tensions.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday the U.S. is giving the two governments the same message privately that it is giving publicly: that they need to work out the dispute through consultation, not through provocation.

China already is at loggerheads with other Asian nations in island disputes.

The Philippines, which claims South China Sea islands close to its main shores, has described as unacceptable Beijing’s move last month to establish its new city on a remote island in the sea some 350 kilometers (220 miles) from China’s southernmost province. Vietnam called China’s move a violation of international law.

The United States, which maintains a large naval presence in the Pacific, has said maintaining freedom of navigation in the sea is in its national interest, a position that has angered China.

The latest tensions come as China’s ruling Communist Party prepares for a major leadership transition and leaders in both China and Japan face strong domestic pressure to make a show of get-tough positions on matters of national territory.

Appealing to anti-Japanese sentiment, which is still strong in the countries that suffered under Japan’s pre-1945 imperialism, is also often seen as a good way to elicit nationalist support in China and North and South Korea.

Earlier this month, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited a disputed island in the Sea of Japan, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, that was widely seen as an attempt to play up such sentiment ahead of elections later this year.


Where Nationalism Still Matters

Asia’s simmering political tensions defy conventional wisdom.

Too often, we see East Asia only from an economic perspective, marveling at the undeniable success of China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea. Yet these nations have another story to tell, one that owes less to current economic performance than to much older instincts: nationalism and ethnic resentment, the forces that kindled World War I in Sarajevo. Today, those forces underlie disputes in places that we ignore or know nothing about, such as the Senkaku Islands, the Dokdo Islands, and the Spratly archipelago. And those disputes may spark military conflicts between rival Asian countries.

Such thinking goes against the theory that trade must soothe centuries-old enmities, that commerce annihilates even the temptation of war. Isn’t this the lesson of Jean Monnet’s brilliant vision, the European Union? Wars disappeared in Europe when replaced by trade. And Asian countries certainly cooperate with one another commercially; the products that we buy after they’re exported from one Asian country or another are actually composed of pieces that travel from factory to factory in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

South Korea’s conservative government, however, has refused any military cooperation with Japan because the Japanese refuse to recognize South Korean sovereignty on two uninhabitable islets halfway between the two countries (known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese). Each government refers to old treaties and ancient maps to assert its rights, both refuse to enter arbitration, and the matter remains unsettled. Even North Korea supports South Korea in this case—the only area of agreement between the two rivals. In South Korea, Dokdo has become a symbol of resistance to Japanese imperialism. If one points out that such imperialism disappeared in 1945, South Korean politicians and pundits counter that the Japanese soul is imperialist and that Japan’s current government wants to build a nuclear arsenal. In truth, only a few extreme nationalists in Japan harbor that nuclear desire. But now, apparently in response, conservative contenders for the South Korean presidency want to pursue nuclear power as well.

The status of Senkaku (or Diaoyuin, in Chinese), located south of the Japanese archipelago, is likewise unclear. Though these islands are administered by Japan and owned, under Japanese law, by a group of Japanese families, China considers them part of its own empire, and Taiwan also claims them. Chinese vessels constantly patrol near Senkaku, harassing and sometimes sinking Japanese fishing boats. In the Western media, American and European political leaders have focused on the islets’ economic resources, which include fishing zones and possibly gas and oil wells. But if China, Taiwan, and Japan were concerned only with economics, they could find other seas to fish and other wells to drill. The dispute is actually symbolic, motivated by old nationalist feelings and the traditional Asian concern with making one’s adversary lose face. After Chinese vessels rammed Japanese trawlers in 2010, the Japanese government failed to react strongly. This year, the Japanese government is looking for revenge by pushing for the nationalization of Senkaku.

Further south, in the Spratly archipelago—claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia—the potential for conflict is even greater. Here, too, rumors about gas mines confer on Spratly an economic value that would establish rational grounds for conflict. But these energy resources have not yet been confirmed, so the likelier reason for tension is nationalism. In Spratly as in Senkaku, Chinese imperialism tests the resistance of its neighbors, some of which—Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and to some extent even India—are considering an alliance against China. Washington has provoked Chinese anger by supporting the idea. An American shadow hangs over the region already, since the Seventh Fleet ensures the security of the shipping routes. Without it, the Asian economic web would have disintegrated long ago.

The Pacific pressure cooker undermines another piece of conventional wisdom: that military conflict cannot arise between democratic countries. Democratic South Korea and democratic Japan have failed to negotiate minor business and trade issues. Worse, South Korea’s position in this dispute puts it closer to dictatorial North Korea and China than to democratic Japan. On the whole, the burden of history and the internal tensions of a common civilization prove stronger than contemporary political and economic considerations. The potential alliance against China in the Spratly dispute would bring democracies together with the Communist dictatorship of Vietnam—supposedly every bit as Communist as China’s.

Each day seems to bring new provocations. The Korean president has set foot on Dokdo, soon followed by a group of Japanese nationalists. China has sent a naval detachment to the Spratlys. Japanese police have arrested a group of Chinese on Senkaku. Of course, current circumstances play a role in exacerbating these conflicts. Asia’s economy is slowing down; its governments are variously weak (Japan), undergoing transition (South Korea, China) or in search of legitimacy (Vietnam, China). But that should be small comfort, because aggressive nationalism can be an outlet for nations facing such uncertainties. In Asia, neither economics nor democracy dissolves nationalist zeal.

Guy Sorman

The Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012

Lord Wellington depicted the allied triumph at Waterloo as “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” Wellington’s verdict would describe the likely outcome should Chinese and Japanese forces meet in battle over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or elsewhere off the Northeast Asian seaboard. Such a fight appeared farfetched before 2010, when Japan’s Coast Guard apprehendedChinese fishermen who rammed one of its vessels off the disputed islands, but it appears more likely now. After Japan detained and deported Chinese activists who landed on the disputed islands in mid-August, a hawkish Chinese major general, Luo Yuan, called on China to dispatch 100 boats to defend the Diaoyus. In an op-ed published Aug. 20, the nationalistic Chinese broadsheet Global Times warned, “Japan will pay a price for its actions … and the result will be far worse than they anticipated.”

This is more than mere posturing. In July, China’s East Sea Fleetconducted an exercise simulating an amphibious assault on the islands. China’s leaders are clearly thinking about the unthinkable. And with protesters taking to the streets to smash Japanese cars and attack sushi restaurants, their people may be behind them. So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan?

Despite Japan’s latter-day image as a military pushover, a naval war would not be a rout for China. While the Japanese postwar “peace” constitution “forever renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has accumulated several pockets of material excellence, such as undersea warfare, since World War II. And Japanese mariners are renowned for their professionalism. If commanders manage their human, material, and geographic advantages artfully, Tokyo could make a maritime war with China a close-run thing — and perhaps even prevail.

Past naval wars between the two rivals set the stage for today’s island controversy. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, a fleet engagement turned Asia’s Sinocentric order upside down in an afternoon. The Imperial Japanese Navy, hurriedly cobbled together from imported hulls and components following Japan’s Meiji Restoration, smashed China’s Beiyang Fleet, a force widely considered superior in material terms. The September 1894 Battle of the Yalu River was won by the navy with superior seamanship, gunnery, and morale. While Japan is no longer a rising power, the JMSDF has preserved a culture of human excellence.

If a rerun of the Battle of the Yalu takes place, how would Japan’s navy match up against China’s? This is admittedly an improbable scenario. A straightforward China-on-Japan war is doubtful unless Beijing manages to isolate Tokyo diplomatically — as wise practitioners of limited war attempt to do — or Tokyo isolates itself through foolish diplomacy. Barring that, a conflict would probably ensnare the United States as an active combatant on the Japanese side. War is a political act — “statesmanship directing arms,” as naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan puts it — but let’s discount politics for now and look at the prospects of war in strictly military terms, as a contest between Chinese and Japanese sea power.

In raw numerical terms, there is no contest. Japans navy boasts 48 “major surface combatants,” ships designed to attack enemy main fleets while taking a pounding themselves. For the JMSDF these include “helicopter destroyers,” or light aircraft carriers; guided-missile destroyers equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis combat system, a combination radar, computer, and fire-control system found in frontline U.S. Navy warships; and an assortment of lesser destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. A squadron of 16 diesel-electric submarines augments the surface fleet. Juxtapose this against the PLA Navy‘s 73 major surface combatants, 84 missile-firing patrol craft, and 63 submarines, and the bidding appears grim for Japan. China’s navy is far superior in sheer weight of steel.

But raw numbers can be misleading, for three main reasons. First, as strategist Edward Luttwak has observed, weapons are like “black boxes” until actually used in combat: no one knows for sure whether they will perform as advertised. Battle, not technical specifications, is the true arbiter of military technology’s value. Accurately forecasting how ships, planes, and missiles will perform amid the stresses and chaos of combat thus verges on impossible. This is especially true, adds Luttwak, when conflict pits an open society against a closed one. Open societies have a habit of debating their military failings in public, whereas closed societies tend to keep their deficiencies out of view. Luttwak was referring to the U.S.-Soviet naval competition, but it applies to Sino-Japanese competition as well. The Soviet Navy appeared imposing on paper. But Soviet warships on the high seas during the Cold War showed unmistakable symptoms of decay, from slipshod shiphandling to rusty hulls. The PLA Navy could be hiding something as well. The quality of the JMSDF’s platforms, and its human capabilities, could partially or wholly offset the PLA’s advantage of numbers.

Second, there’s the human variable in warfare. In his classic account, The Naval War of 1812, Theodore Roosevelt explained the U.S. Navy’s success in single-ship duels against Britain’s Royal Navy as a product of quality ship design and construction and superior fighting prowess: in other words, of material and human factors. The latter is measured in seamanship, gunnery, and the myriad of traits that set one navy apart from others. Mariners hone these traits not by sitting in port and polishing their equipment but by going to sea. JMSDF flotillas ply Asian waters continually, operating solo or with other navies. The PLA Navy is inert by comparison. With the exception of a counter-piracy deployment to the Gulf of Aden that began in 2009, Chinese fleets emerge only for brief cruises or exercises, leaving crews little time to develop an operating rhythm, learn their profession, or build healthy habits. The human edge goes to Japan.

And three, it’s misleading to reduce the problem solely to fleets. There will be no purely fleet-on-fleet engagement in Northeast Asia. Geography situated the two Asian titans close to each other: their landmasses, including outlying islands, are unsinkable aircraft carriers and missile firing platforms. Suitably armed and fortified, land-based sites constitute formidable implements of sea power. So we need to factor in both countries’ land-based firepower.

Japan forms the northern arc of the first island chain that envelops the Asian coastline, forming the eastern frontier of the Yellow and East China seas. No island between the Tsushima Strait (which separates Japan from Korea) and Taiwan lies more than 500 miles off China’s coast. Most, including the Senkakus/Diaoyus, are far closer. Within these cramped waters, any likely battleground would fall within range of shore-based firepower. Both militaries field tactical aircraft that boast the combat radius to strike throughout the Yellow and East China seas and into the Western Pacific. Both possess shore-fired anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and can add their hitting power to the mix.

There are some asymmetries, however. PLA conventional ballistic missiles can strike at land sites throughout Asia, putting Japanese assets at risk before they ever leave port or take to the sky. And China’s Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, has reportedly fielded anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) able to strike at moving ships at sea from the mainland. With a range estimated at more than 900 miles, the ASBM could strike anywhere in the China seas, at seaports throughout the Japanese islands, and far beyond.

Consider the Senkakus, the hardest assets to defend from the Japanese standpoint. They lie near the southwestern tip of the Ryukyu chain, closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa or Japan’s major islands. Defending them from distant bases would be difficult. But if Japan forward-deployed Type 88 ASCMs — mobile, easily transportable anti-ship weapons — and missile crews to the islets and to neighboring islands in the Ryukyu chain, its ground troops could generate overlapping fields of fire that would convert nearby seas into no-go zones for Chinese shipping. Once dug in, they would be tough to dislodge, even for determined Chinese rocketeers and airmen.

Whoever forges sea, land, and air forces into the sharpest weapon of sea combat stands a good chance of prevailing. That could be Japan if its political and military leaders think creatively, procure the right hardware, and arrange it on the map for maximum effect. After all, Japan doesn’t need to defeat China’s military in order to win a showdown at sea, because it already holds the contested real estate; all it needs to do is deny China access. If Northeast Asian seas became a no-man’s land but Japanese forces hung on, the political victory would be Tokyo’s.

Japan also enjoys the luxury of concentrating its forces at home, whereas the PLA Navy is dispersed into three fleets spread along China’s lengthy coastline. Chinese commanders face a dilemma: If they concentrate forces to amass numerical superiority during hostilities with Japan, they risk leaving other interests uncovered. It would hazardous for Beijing to leave, say, the South China Sea unguarded during a conflict in the northeast.

And finally, Chinese leaders would be forced to consider how far a marine war would set back their sea-power project. China has staked its economic and diplomatic future in large part on a powerful oceangoing navy. In December 2006, President Hu Jintao ordered PLA commanders to construct “a powerful people’s navy” that could defend the nation’s maritime lifelines — in particular sea lanes that connect Indian Ocean energy exporters with users in China — “at any time.” That takes lots of ships. If it lost much of the fleet in a Sino-Japanese clash — even in a winning effort — Beijing could see its momentum toward world-power status reversed in an afternoon.

Here’s hoping China’s political and military leaders understand all this. If so, the Great Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012 won’t be happening outside these pages.

James R. Holmes

Posted in: Economy, Politics