What’s at stake in the smoldering diplomatic crisis with China over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which only seem to attract fishing boats and ultranationalists?
Many Japanese observers say Beijing, which claims the Japan-controlled islets in the East China Sea and calls them Diaoyu, is trying to secure natural resources in the surrounding area, whereas China says the islets were captured by Japan in the 1890s at the start of its aggression toward China.
But according to Sumihiko Kawamura, a former rear admiral and commander of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s antisubmarine air wing, Beijing has a more critical but less-articulated goal that, if achieved, could tip strategic military superiority from the United States to China in the Pacific.
Kawamura believes Beijing is trying to turn the South China Sea into “a safe haven” for its nuclear-powered submarines, which are armed with ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. For that purpose, seizing the Senkakus — just 190 km east of Taiwan and close to the northern gateway to the South China Sea — is indispensable, Kawamura says.
Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are considered China’s only viable option to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent against the U.S., because America has identified all of China’s ICBM silos and could easily destroy them in a pre-emptive nuclear strike, he says.
If Beijing maintains a second-strike capability with SLBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland, Kawamura says, this risk would possibly dissuade America from intervening in a major conflict involving China.
“This is directly related to the nuclear strategy of China. China will never give up the Senkakus,” the former vice principal of the Joint Staff College of the Self-Defense Forces said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“This is just the beginning. Even if it takes 100 years, Beijing will try to seize the islands” to turn the South China Sea into a safe haven for its missile subs, he said.
Kawamura indicated the MSDF has the capability, with the U.S. Navy, to contain China’s submarines within the South China Sea, which is partially enclosed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The MSDF’s nonnuclear “ultraquiet” submarines, working together with the U.S. Navy, can find, track and even sink any Chinese submarine that tries to enter the Pacific Ocean by crossing anywhere along a sea line that runs from the Japanese main islands to the Philippines via Okinawa and Taiwan, Kawamura said. The Chinese navy calls the line the First Island Chain, given its strategic importance.
“(We can) sink Chinese submarines anytime we want if it comes to a showdown” in the Pacific Ocean, said Kawamura, who in August published a book detailing a possible Japanese-Chinese military clash over the Senkaku Islands.
“No option is left (for China) except for trying to make the South China Sea a safe haven and defending submarines carrying nuclear missiles there,” Kawamura said.
According to The New York Times, Xiong Guangkai, then deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, threatened the U.S. in 1995, saying China would consider launching a nuclear attack on Los Angeles if the U.S. were to intervene in a Taiwan conflict.
In 2005, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu sparked a sensation by telling reporters that Beijing would have no choice but to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear strike against American cities if China faced the prospect of defeat in a conventional conflict over Taiwan.
“Japan has been protected by the nuclear umbrella of the U.S. If the U.S. cannot fully trust its deterrence power (against China), the U.S. won’t interfere in” military conflicts between Japan and China, nor those involving Taiwan, he said.
Recently, China started calling the South China Sea one of its “core interests,” signaling that no compromise would be acceptable and the use of force wouldn’t be ruled out to protect its interests in the area.
China has also opened a large naval base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea that reportedly can accommodate as many as 20 submarines. This is part of the strategy to provide its nuclear-armed subs with a safe haven, Kawamura said.
Experts believe China’s SLBMs have a maximum range of about 8,000 km. This means the lower 48 states in the U.S. would be out of reach from submarines in the South China Sea.
But China is working to extend the range of its SLBMs so they can hit the U.S. without its subs having to venture too far into the Pacific, according to Kawamura.
He said he believes China is being forced to follow the same tactic the Soviet Navy adopted during the Cold War.
The MSDF and U.S. Navy were able to track “almost all of the Soviet submarines” and thereby minimized the SLBM threat in the Pacific, Kawamura said.
As part of its nuclear deterrence against the U.S., the Soviet Union tried to turn the Sea of Okhotsk into “a bastion” for its nuclear sub fleet by crowding many surface warships and subs there.
China still lacks the technology to make its submarines stealthy. They are far noisier and easier to track than the Soviet subs, Kawamura said.
“When navigating, Chinese submarines sound like they are pounding a drum or bell,” he said.
He believes that for now, the MSDF has supremacy over the Chinese navy, particularly because of its advanced antisubmarine warfare capabilities.
Submarine warfare could be the decisive element in a modern naval engagement. At present, China has only four antisubmarine aircraft, whereas 77 MSDF P-3C sub hunters regularly patrol the seas around Japan.
“As far as submarine warfare is concerned, China still doesn’t have the ability to do what we were doing 30 years ago (to counter Soviet submarines). They are 30 years behind us,” Kawamura said.
China recently launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sparking a media sensation. But the carrier’s operational theater would be restricted to just the South China Sea if a real war broke out, given its various technological limitations, Kawamura said.
Echoing many other military analysts, Kawamura noted China lacks the catapult technology to launch heavy carrier-based jets.
China’s subs also aren’t quiet enough to protect a carrier. The Liaoning would only “fall prey to” MSDF submarines even if it is dispatched, for example, to the East China Sea in the case of a war with Japan, Kawamura said.
“I don’t think China will able to have an aircraft carrier that really performs within 10 years or so,” he added.
If China were to attack and try to seize the Senkaku Islands now, it might be able to temporarily occupy them. But the occupation would not last long and the Chinese would eventually lose because the MSDF can easily cut off the maritime logistical lines for any occupiers, Kawamura said.
“If China has analyzed (the MSDF’s capability) in a calm manner, I don’t think it will resort to force. But there can be an accidental escalation” leading to a military clash, he said.
Chinese leaders may also try to use military force to attack the Senkakus to divert the frustration of the Chinese people, Kawamura warned.
He thus urged the government to enact legislation to ease regulations on the MSDF and Japan Coast Guard to allow them to fire warning shots against foreign ships approaching the islets. Otherwise, Chinese ships will keep coming back to the Senkakus for years to show they effectively control the territory, he said.