On Nov. 23, China announced the creation of a newly expanded air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, overlapping a large expanse of territory also claimed by Japan. The move has produced a visceral reaction in the Japanese vernacular media, particularly the weekly tabloids. Five out of nine weekly magazines that went on sale last Monday and Tuesday contained scenarios that raised the possibility of a shooting war.
One can only wonder what sort of tale American “techno-thriller” writer Tom Clancy — author of “The Hunt for Red October” (1984, involving the Soviet Union) and “Debt of Honor” (1994, involving Japan) — might have spun from the scenario that’s now unfolding in the East China Sea.
Alas, Mr. Clancy passed away of an undisclosed illness on Oct. 1, so instead the task has fallen to Japan’s gunji hyōronka (military affairs critics) or gunji jānarisuto (military affairs writers), whose phones have been ringing off the hook.
First, let’s take Flash (Dec. 17), which ran a “Simulated breakout of war over the Senkakus,” with Mamoru Sato, a former Air Self-Defense Force general, providing editorial supervision. Flash’s scenario has the same tense tone as a Clancy novel, including dialog. On a day in August 2014, a radar operator instructs patrolling F-15J pilots to “scramble north” at an altitude of 65,000 feet to intercept a suspected intruder and proceeds from there.
Sunday Mainichi (Dec. 15) ran an article headlined “Sino-Japanese war to break out in January.” Political reporter Takao Toshikawa tells the magazine that the key to what happens next will depend on China’s economy.
“The economic situation in China is pretty rough right now, and from the start of next year it’s expected to worsen,” says Toshikawa. “The real-estate boom is headed for a total collapse and the economic disparities between the costal regions and the interior continue to widen. I see no signs that the party’s Central Committee is getting matters sorted out.”
An unnamed diplomatic source offered the prediction that the Chinese might very well set off an incident “accidentally on purpose”: “I worry about the possibility they might force down a civilian airliner and hold the passengers hostage,” he suggested.
In an article described as a “worst-case simulation,” author Osamu Eya expressed concerns in Shukan Asahi Geino (Dec. 12) that oil supertankers bound for Japan might be targeted.
“Japan depends on sea transport for oil and other material resources,” said Eya. “If China were to target them, nothing could be worse to contemplate.”
In an air battle over the Senkakus, the Geino article continues, superiority of radar communications would be a key factor in determining the outcome. Japanese forces have five fixed radar stations in Kyushu and four in Okinawa. China would certainly target these, which would mean surrounding communities would also be vulnerable.
One question that seems to be on almost everybody’s mind is, will the U.S. military become involved?
Shukan Gendai (Dec. 14) speculated that Chinese leader Xi Jinping might issue an order for a Japanese civilian airliner to be shot down. As a result of this, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier would come to Japan’s aid and send up fighters to contend with the Chinese.
“Unlike Japan, the U.S. military would immediately respond to a radar lock-on threat by shooting down the Chinese planes,” asserts military analyst Mitsuhiro Sera. “It would naturally regard an aircraft flying overhead as hostile. They would shoot at it even if that were to risk discrediting the Obama administration.”
“With the creation of Japan’s National Security Council on Dec. 4, Japan-U.S. solidarity meets a new era,” an unnamed diplomatic source told Shukan Gendai. “If a clash were to occur between the U.S. and China, it would be natural for the Self-Defense Forces to provide backup assistance. This was confirmed at the ‘two-plus-two’ meeting on Oct. 3.”
“China is bent on wresting the Senkakus away from Japan, and if Japan dispatches its Self-Defense Forces, China will respond with naval and air forces,” Saburo Takai predicts in Flash. “In the case of an incursion by irregular forces, that would make it more difficult for the U.S. to become involved. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would protest through diplomatic channels, but China would attempt to present its takeover as a fait accompli.
“China fears a direct military confrontation with the U.S.,” Takai adds. “A few days ago, two U.S. B-52s transited the ADIZ claimed by China, but the flights were not for any vague purpose. I suppose the Chinese tracked the flights on their radar, but the B-52s have electronic detection functions that can identify radar frequencies, wavelength and source of the signals. These flights are able to lay bare China’s air defense systems. It really hits home to the Chinese that they can’t project their military power.”
Which side, wonders Shukan Gendai, will respond to a provocation by pulling the trigger? The game of chicken between two great superpowers is about to begin.