HONG KONG–China’s naval and paramilitary ships are churning up the ocean around islands it disputes with Tokyo in what experts say is a strategy to overwhelm the numerically inferior Japanese forces that must sail out to detect and track the flotillas.
A daily stream of bulletins announce ship deployments into the East China Sea, naval combat exercises, the launch of new warships and commentaries calling for resolute defense of Chinese territory.
“The operational goal in the East China Sea is to wear out the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and the Japan Coast Guard,” said James Holmes, a maritime strategy expert at the Newport, Rhode Island U.S. Naval War College.
It wasn’t until China became embroiled in the high stakes territorial dispute with Japan late last year that its secretive military opened up.
Now, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is routinely telegraphing its moves around the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
News of these missions also has domestic propaganda value for Beijing because it demonstrates the ruling Communist Party has the power and determination to defend what it insists has always been Chinese territory, political analysts said.
However, experts warn that the danger of these constant deployments from both sides into the contested area increases the danger of an accident or miscalculation that could lead to conflict.
In the most threatening incident so far, Tokyo last month said the fire control, or targeting, radar of Chinese warships near the islands “locked on” to a Japanese helicopter and destroyer in two separate incidents in late January.
Beijing denies this but U.S. military officers have backed up Japan’s account.
“We are in extremely dangerous territory here,” said Ross Babbage, a military analyst in Canberra and a former senior Australian defense official.
“We could have had Japan and China in a serious war.”
Some foreign and Japanese security experts say Japan’s powerful navy and coast guard still holds the upper hand in the disputed waters but that this could change if Beijing intensifies its patrols.
“I believe China for the time being focuses resources on the South China Sea, which is a higher priority for them now,” said Yoshihiko Yamada, a maritime policy expert and professor at Tokai University.
“But, if they shift more resources to the East China Sea, the coast guard alone would not be able to handle the situation.”
There were signs that tension remained high last week when Tokyo protested that China had deployed a series of buoys around the islands to collect intelligence about Japanese operations.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the buoys were in Chinese waters and positioned to collect weather information.
Beijing’s paramilitary agencies have been equally forthright since the standoff began with a stream of news and footage of their deployments.
Ships from these agencies including customs, maritime surveillance and fisheries are in the frontline of Beijing’s campaign to assert sovereignty over the disputed islands, which are believed to be rich in oil and gas.
A Chinese fisheries surveillance vessel entered Japan’s territorial waters near the islands for the second day running on Feb. 24 in what was the 31st similar incursion since September, the Japanese coast guard said last week.
News bulletins in China are saturated with coverage of Chinese paramilitary ships jostling for position with their Japanese counterparts around the rocky islands.
PRESSURE ON JAPAN COAST GUARD
There is evidence Japan’s coast guard is feeling the pressure.
It plans to form a new, 600-member unit equipped with 12 patrol ships that will be deployed exclusively on missions around the disputed islands.
And, it is boosting its budget to buy ships and aircraft by 23 percent to 32.5 billion yen ($348.15 million) for the year starting in April.
The coast guard also plans to add 119 personnel in the year starting next month. That would be the biggest staff increase in 32 years.
As tension mounted around the islands ahead of his return to office as prime minister of Japan in December, Shinzo Abe proposed converting retired navy vessels into coast guard patrol ships.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on March 5 that his ministry and the coast guard were discussing the idea.
Beijing has so far held its navy back from waters immediately surrounding the disputed territory but its warships are almost constantly patrolling nearby seas and other waterways around the Japanese archipelago, according to the PLA announcements.
In late January, the PLA said a naval fleet would conduct a naval exercise in the Western Pacific after “sailing through islands” off the Chinese coast, a clear reference to the Japanese archipelago. The navy had conducted seven similar exercises last year, it said.
In a series of subsequent bulletins, the PLA said three of its most modern warships, the missile destroyer Qingdao and the missile frigates Yantai and Yancheng would make up the fleet which would conduct training in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea in an 18-day deployment.
The U.S. navy has also monitored the sharply increased tempo of Chinese naval and paramilitary operations near Japan.
In an unusually blunt public assessment, a senior American naval intelligence officer, Captain James Fanell, told a seminar in San Diego on Jan. 31 that the PLA navy had last year sent seven surface action groups into the Philippines Sea south of Japan.
It had also deployed the biggest number of submarines in its history into this area, he said.
It was unclear if Fanell was referring to the same seven deployments the PLA disclosed last month.
“Make no mistake, the PLA navy is focused on war at sea and about sinking an opposing fleet,” Fanell said.
And, the U.S. officer said, China’s maritime surveillance agency, a civil proxy for the PLA, had become “a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization” with the goal of enforcing territorial claims.
The frequency of deployments appears set to continue with the PLA announcing on Feb. 27 it would conduct 40 military exercises this year with an increased emphasis on “core security-related interests.”
Senior Chinese officials have strongly implied that Japan’s claim over the islands is an attack on one of China’s core interests, an important distinction to Beijing in defining its non-negotiable national priorities.
In a speech to the politburo in late January, Chinese party leader Xi Jinping referred to the pain of “wartime atrocities”, an apparent reference to Japan’s bloody invasion and occupation of China last century, according to a report of his remarks carried by the official Xinhua news agency.
“We will stick to the road of peaceful development but will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests,” he was reported to have said.
And, Beijing continues to boost its military firepower. Chinese shipyards last week delivered a new, stealth frigate to the navy, the official PLA Daily newspaper reported.
The radar evading type-056 frigate would be introduced in big numbers as the first step in a systematic upgrade of navy hardware, the paper said.
BUT JAPAN SAYS IT WON’T BUCKLE
Despite the intense military and diplomatic pressure, the Japanese government shows no sign of wilting.
“We simply cannot tolerate any challenge now and in the future,” Prime Minister Abe said recently in Washington.
“No nation should make any miscalculation or underestimate the firmness of our resolve.”
Still, military analysts said Japanese forces must continue to match China’s patrols and exercises.
In a paper prepared for an Australian military think tank last year, an influential Japanese military strategist, retired Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, said Chinese naval forces sailing around the Japanese islands “will surely meet intensive surveillance and continuous tracking” from Japanese forces and its U.S. allies.
Some military analysts suggest Beijing’s continuous deployments around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are also part of a wider policy of enhancing its claims over a number of disputed territories in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“If Beijing starts policing territory it claims as its own, and if rival claimants can’t push back effectively, it will start looking like the rightful sovereign over that territory,” said Holmes.
However, Holmes added that Japan poses a much stiffer challenge for Beijing than smaller nations like the Philippines which also has overlapping territorial claims with China.
While smaller in raw numbers than the PLA navy, the highly trained Japanese navy is generally regarded as the most powerful in Asia with state-of-the art ships, submarines and aircraft. And, it has a security alliance with the United States that obliges Washington to intervene if Japan is attacked.
Other military experts suggest Beijing has decided to intensify its operations against Japan, a nation whose wartime aggression is remembered across Asia, because confrontations with smaller neighbors in recent years had led to a region-wide diplomatic backlash.
“The Senkaku/Diaoyu hoopla of late is triggered by China’s desire to extricate itself from total regional isolation caused by China’s expansive territorial claims against virtually all of its maritime neighbors,” said Yu Maochun, an expert on the PLA at the Annapolis, Maryland United States Naval Academy.
($1 = 93.3500 Japanese yen)
Turning Japanese: Obama’s “Asia Pivot” Centers on Japan
How the island disputes are helping to warm the chilly U.S.-Japan relationship.
Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Foreign Minister, Fumio Kashida, spent the day in Washington meeting with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on February 22. The statements made by both sides as the talks came to end showed that the two nations were remarkably on the same page with regard to the issues of trade and security. Of the most significance was the apparent reaffirmation given by Secretary Kerry that the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. This means that, in the event of an attack on the islands, the U.S. would be treaty-bound to come to Japan’s defense.
The success of the meeting surprised many people who follow U.S.-Japan affairs. Although the two nations are longtime allies, the relationship between the Obama administration and the revolving-door of Japanese prime ministers (Abe is the fifth Prime Minister elected by the Japanese legislature since Obama was first inaugurated in January 2009) has been anything but warm.
Disagreements between the Obama administration and the Japanese leadership first emerged back in August 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wrestled power from the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The DPJ’s incoming Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, announced that he wanted to “rebalance” the relationship between the U.S. and Japan. To be fair, the Prime Minister went out of his way to explain that this was not an attack on the alliance, which he continued to refer to as the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy, but rather a long-overdue call for a more equal partnership between the two nations. In addition, Hatoyama felt that it was important for Japan to reach out to its neighbors and build an “East Asian Community,” which would include closer ties between Japan and China.
On their own, Hatoyama’s statements probably would not have raised many eyebrows in Washington — they could be understood as a natural maturing of the relationship between the two longstanding allies. Nevertheless, a serious rift did occur when the new prime minister questioned an agreement brokered in 2006 involving the Marine Corps Futenma airbase on the island of Okinawa. The deal that had emerged after lengthy negotiations called for relocating the base to a less populated part of the island. Hatoyama wanted to reopen the agreement and pursue a solution that might move the base completely out of Okinawa. The U.S., however, had no interest in renegotiating the pact, and the prime minister’s request was summarily dismissed by then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Because of commitments that he had made to the Okinawans as his party was seeking power, the prime minister continued to push the issue. The result was that the Futenma base remained a major point of contention between the U.S. and Japan. Although Hatoyama reversed his opposition in May 2010, his flip-flopping on the issue further weakened his status in Japan. The next month, after less than a year in office, Hatoyama resigned.
Although Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, endorsed, at least formally, the 2006 agreement, relations remained strained. Many in Okinawa still passionately opposed the deal, and their concerns were taken seriously by other Japanese citizens who knew that the Okinawans bore the brunt of the U.S. military presence in Japan.
The tragic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 pushed the Futenma issue to the sidelines. Operation Tomodachi (“friendship,” in Japanese), launched by the U.S. within hours of the triple disasters eventually involved more than 180 U.S. aircraft and ships, and at least 20,000 U.S. personnel. In addition to providing much needed food, fresh water, search and rescue support, and heavy machinery to aid in reconstruction, Operation Tomodachi supplied technical experts and materials to help the Japanese in their efforts to contain the radiation leak from the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The U.S. operation engendered an incredible amount of goodwill, especially in the affected regions of Japan.
It was not only Operation Tomodachi, however, that helped to drive the U.S. and Japan back together. In September 2010, a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese patrol boat in the waters off of the Senkaku Islands that lie south of Okinawa in the East China Sea. This was the first incident in what would become an increasingly volatile dispute between the Japan and China over who owns the islands (known as the Diayou Islands in China). The saber rattling between Japan and China continues, and has escalated to the point where there are very real fears that a misstep by either side could lead to a war.
One side effect of this dispute has been to push the Japan away from China, and towards the U.S. This movement was already well underway when the LDP returned to power at the end of 2012. Nevertheless, the new LDP Prime Minister, Abe, announced that restoring relations with the U.S. would be a top priority. Indeed, he wanted his first visit abroad to be to the U.S. The visit was delayed, however, ostensibly because of White House preparations for the president’s second inauguration, but probably also because of a new issue that had emerged between Japan and the U.S.: Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP is a potential trillion-dollar free trade agreement between the Pacific-facing nations of Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, the United States, Mexico, and Canada. President Obama mentioned the TPP during his recent State of the Union address, and it lies at the center of the Obama administrations much-touted “Asia pivot.” Nevertheless, as it now stands, the U.S. already has free trade agreements with six of 10 countries that are parties to the TPP negotiations, including almost all of the larger economies. Therefore, it is difficult to see why the TPP is expected to have such a great impact on U.S. trade or U.S. relations with Asia. This would change, however, if Japan were to become part of the TPP. For the first time, the U.S. and Japan, the first and third largest economies in the world, would be joined by a free trade agreement.
Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the politically powerful organization of Japanese businesses known as the Keidanren strongly support Japan joining the TPP talks. The U.S. auto industry, however, worries that if Japan was to become part of the TPP, then tariffs currently placed on cars and trucks imported from Japan would have to be eliminated. Opposition is even stronger among Japanese farmers, who do not want their country to enter into an agreement that would potentially end the extraordinary tariffs that now protect much of Japanese agricultural from foreign competition.
Although Abe had given indications that he supported entry into the TPP negotiations, he had to be mindful that rural voters were crucial to the LDP’s return to power. That is why there was speculation in Japan that the Obama administration delayed Abe’s visit because they wanted the new Prime Minister to have a clear position on the TPP. In fact, the situation with the TPP was beginning to exhibit shades of earlier dispute over the Futenma bases, when at one point President Obama was said to have asked if then Prime Minister Hatoyama could “follow through” with his commitments on moving the Okinawan bases. In fact, it began to seem reasonable to expect that there would be no movement at all on the TPP issue during the meetings in Washington.
It was surprising, therefore, that the TPP issue was effectively defused by a joint statement issued after the meetings acknowledging that “that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities,” and that “it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations.” This was basically an invitation from the U.S. for Japan to join the negotiations on exactly the terms that Abe needed. The “agree to disagree” understanding allows both the Abe and the Obama administrations the flexibility to move forward without offending core constituencies.
Perhaps even more important were the talks that took place at the same time between Kerry and Foreign Minister Kashida. In his remarks before the meeting, Kerry complimented the Japanese for the restraint that they had shown over the issue of the Senkuku Islands, and at least according to accounts in the Japanese press, there was a “mutual commitment” made to move forward with the already established Futenma agreement.
Kerry’s reassuring statements about the Senkaku islands did not represent a change in U.S. policy, since Hillary Clinton had offered the same assurance back in 2010. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the current Secretary of State explicitly restating that commitment will raise temperatures among the Chinese leadership. In fact, one way of interpreting what happened during the meeting was that the U.S. and Japanese leaders were determined to demonstrate to Beijing just how strong the alliance between the U.S. and Japan was once again. How this message will be received in China – as either a warning or a provocation – may well be the most important question to come out of the meeting.