China has passed a new and unsettling milestone in the East China Sea, sending government vessels to waters near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands for more than 100 straight days in what Tokyo has labeled a “relentless” campaign to take control of the disputed islets.
But more disconcerting for Tokyo than the milestone itself is the timing.
It comes at a precarious time for Sino-Japanese and Sino-U.S. ties. Washington is undergoing a radical shift in its policy toward Beijing, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo using a speech Thursday to evoke images of a new Cold War and stating that the U.S. “can never go back to the status quo” in its dealings with China.
Japan, meanwhile, is being forced to rethink how it will approach an increasingly belligerent China after years of work by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to repair Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing.
There are few better examples that underscore Japan’s complicated relationship with China than the uninhabited but strategically positioned Senkakus, which are also claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu, as well as Taiwan, which calls them Tiaoyutai.
While the Senkakus themselves may not hold much value, the surrounding waters are strategically significant in terms of sea lane control, fishing resources, untapped energy reserves and military imperatives.
Although the sovereignty row over the islands has long been a point of contention for Beijing, the issue was effectively put on the backburner for many years as economic ties with Japan were prioritized. In 2010, however, it burst into the mainstream public consciousness when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkakus, resulting in a major diplomatic tussle.
But it was Japan’s effective nationalization of the islets in 2012 that truly set the stage for the full-throated attempt by Beijing over the last eight years to assert its claim to the islets while wearing down Japan.
According to Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, Beijing has been actively working to create “a new reality in which Chinese vessels maintain a fairly significant presence in the area so that maybe 10, 20 years later, China can claim it’s been controlling this area.”
U.S. and Japanese defense officials have even said that a scenario in the not-so-distant future where Beijing announces that it has “administrative control” over the Senkakus — citing its continued presence there — is far from unthinkable.
The day-in, day-out appearance of Chinese government ships may also prove to be the death rattle for improving the Sino-Japanese relationship.
“There is rising concern about the new records being set for China’s maritime presence around the Senkakus,” said Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in Singapore. “I think this should counter any mistaken impression that the Abe administration has reset relations with China in more positive terms.”
China’s approach, an incremental strategy known colloquially as “salami-slicing,” was rebuked by the Japanese Defense Ministry in its annual defense white paper released on July 14.
Referring to the Senkakus, the document slammed China over its unyielding attempts to “unilaterally change the status quo” in the East China Sea all while Beijing touts the need for global cooperation amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Despite protests by our country, Chinese official ships repeatedly intruded into our territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands,” the paper said — characterizing for the first time China’s actions around the islets as “relentless.”
A busy year
This year, in particular, has seen the Senkakus issue make headlines.
In May, China Coast Guard vessels attempted to chase a Japanese trawler from inside the waters, leading to a tense standoff with JCG ships. Earlier this month, Chinese government vessels spent a record 39 hours and 23 minutes in Japan’s territorial waters around the islets — the longest period since the islets’ effective nationalization. And last week, it emerged that China had taken the rare step of complaining to Japan early this month about Japanese fishing boats allegedly “trespassing” in the waters.
Chinese vessels have also entered Japan’s territorial waters for a total of 11 days since April 14, triggering a string of stern diplomatic protests by Tokyo. Beijing has rejected these, claiming the islets as its “inherent territory since ancient times.” Japan, for its part, has refused to acknowledge that a question over the sovereignty of the isles ever existed.
According to Alexander Neill, an Asia-Pacific security analyst and consultant, China is seeking to achieve several aims beyond maintaining a sustained presence to demonstrate administrative control over the islands and waters. These include testing the readiness, reaction times and force posture of the Self-Defense Forces and JCG.
“Reacting to Chinese incursions is expensive and draining on Japan’s resources,” Neill said. “Meanwhile, China is steadily increasing the tonnage of its coast guard vessels, far outstripping that of the Japan Coast Guard.”
Since 2010, the CCG’s fleet of large patrol ships has more than doubled from approximately 60 to more than 130, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s 2019 annual report on Chinese military power, making it by far the largest coast guard force in the world “and increasing its capacity to conduct simultaneous, extended offshore operations in multiple disputed areas.”
The newer ships — including one known as “the beast” due to its 12,000-ton displacement and 76 mm rapid-fire guns, an armament typically mounted on naval destroyers or frigates — are substantially larger and more capable than the older ships.
Japan’s stance has typically been to respond in kind to Chinese maritime and air intrusions near the Senkakus, with the SDF being mobilized only if the situation exceeds the capacity of the JCG to respond.
For now, the SDF has mainly been dispatched to the airspace above the East China Sea.
According to the Defense Ministry, Air Self-Defense Force fighters were scrambled 947 times in fiscal 2019 — the third-largest number since 1958, when the SDF began scrambling against aircraft intruding into Japanese airspace. Nearly 71 percent of these were against Chinese aircraft.
The ASDF has also been flying daily patrols over the East China Sea from sunrise to sunset to monitor Chinese military aircraft in the area since last year, media reports citing government sources have said.
“The JSDF is gradually being overworked and overwhelmed,” said Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel and researcher at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. “Yes, it can go out and respond to Chinese air and sea incursions, but the Chinese are showing (up) in more numbers, in more places, and more often than ever. And the SDF simply doesn’t have the resources to match the Chinese.
“Play this out for a few more years and the mismatch will widen.”
South China Sea link
Much of the global focus, however, has not been on the East China Sea but rather a neighboring waterway that is more than just physically connected: the flash-point South China Sea, home to key shipping lanes crucial to the Japanese economy.
Some 42 percent of Japan’s maritime trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, according to the China Power project at the Center for Strategic Studies think tank in Washington.
Beijing claims some 80 percent of the South China Sea under its “nine-dash line,” a vaguely delineated area based on maps from the 1940s, and has spent several years building fortified military bases on man-made islands there. Some of these islands are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, but all have been used to cement its claims.
Tokyo, Washington and others whose trade plies the routes have long feared effective Chinese control of the waterway would leave them open to coercion, or worse.
“Japan has always made a direct connection between the South China Sea and its economic security, via the sea lanes that carry Japan imports of strategic commodities, as well as its manufactured exports,” said IISS’s Graham, who has written a book on Japanese sea lane security.
Even with the push by Japan to repair ties with China, the Abe administration has remained vocal on the subject of the South China Sea. Tokyo has repeatedly urged Beijing to adhere to the rule of law and freedom of navigation, while also joining the U.S. and others for military exercises in and near the waterway, sending some of its biggest warships through the waters, much to the chagrin of China.
Newsham said that the Japanese views on both the South and East China seas “are interrelated.”
“But just based on geography alone, Chinese control of the South China Sea terrifies Tokyo. And it should,” he said, noting the huge percentage of energy and trade that flows through the waterway.
“Give the PRC (People’s Republic of China) the ability to choke that off — or even threaten to do so — and Japan then comes under all sorts of pressure to accommodate China in any number of areas,” Newsham said.
Tokyo also draws a more general connection between the South China Sea and Southeast Asia as a region to its own security.
Japan doesn’t want to see the region dominated by China, leading to its broader support for the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the rule of law, Graham said.
These fears have echoed the broader U.S. stance.
Just two weeks ago, Washington took the extraordinary step of declaring Beijing’s claims in the waterway “completely unlawful.” In a separate speech this month, Pompeo decried Beijing’s “campaign of bullying” in the South China Sea and pledged that Washington would “not allow” China to treat the waters “as its maritime empire.” The following day, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell asserted that the U.S. was “no longer going to say we are neutral on these maritime issues” and warned that “nothing is off the table.”
Ultimately, according to Newsham, what is happening in the South China Sea could prove to be a bad omen for Tokyo.
“It’s fair to say that whatever happens in the South China Sea is a preview of what is in store in the East China Sea,” he said. “It’s not unthinkable things might happen simultaneously or even ‘first’ in the East China Sea.”
One particular area of great concern for Tokyo near the Senkakus is the so-called gray zone tactics employed by China that exert pressure on Japan but fall below the threshold of conflict.
Presently, China holds its naval assets at a further distance than its paramilitary and law enforcement assets. But if Tokyo responds to a law enforcement presence with MSDF assets “because it is unable to reciprocate, China can complain of assertive or disproportionate responses by Japan,” Neill said.
Japanese defense officials fear such a scenario could even open the door to stronger actions such as an occupation of the islands.
“Retaliation will simply give China another ‘provocation’ that Beijing needs to retaliate against,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami professor and Asia expert.
This trepidation has left Japan effectively paralyzed in its response to the incursions around the Senkakus, she said.
“Scrambling jets, holding military drills, building missile sites on the (Nansei) Islands doesn’t scare the Chinese, since they know that the Japanese government fears escalation more than it fears allowing the Chinese to gradually take what they want,” Dreyer said.
“They won’t be invaded, they’ll be ‘osmosed.’”
Still, although Japan has retained an on-alert security posture over the Senkakus for years now, a response that goes beyond symmetrical could exacerbate tensions in favor of China, said Michishita.
“We are in a good position. We own those islands, unlike (the South Korean-controlled but Japanese-claimed) Takeshima Islands or the (Russian-controlled, Japanese-claimed) Northern Territories,” he said, referring to what the Koreans call Dokdo and a four islets Japan formerly held off Hokkaido.
Michishita said that because Japan continues to exercise administrative control over the Senkakus, “making a fuss is not in our interests.”
“Keeping things as quiet as possible is the way to go,” he added, saying that Japan had “learned a lesson” after China began sending scores of government vessels to the area in response to the 2012 nationalization.
“The lesson is, when we make a fuss … China is likely to exploit it and use it as an opportunity to further escalate the situation.”
The Senkakus: 2010-2020
Sept. 7, 2010: A Chinese trawler collides with Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, resulting in the arrest of the Chinese captain. The incident prompts a major diplomatic row.
September 2012: The government announces it will buy three of the Senkaku islets from a private Japanese owner. In response, China sends government vessels into the surrounding waters to assert its claims as the largest anti-Japanese protests since Beijing and Tokyo normalized ties in 1972 erupt across China.
Nov. 23, 2013: China unilaterally establishes an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that includes the airspace over the Senkakus.
April 2014: U.S. President Barack Obama becomes the first American president to mention the Senkakus as covered under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.
Aug. 6, 2016: Some 230 China Coast Guard vessels and fishing boats are spotted swarming waters near the islets, an “unusually large number,” according to the Foreign Ministry.
April 2017: The Defense Ministry announces that Air Self-Defense Force fighters were scrambled 1,168 times, with 73 percent of them against Chinese aircraft, in fiscal 2016 — the largest number since 1958.
March 21, 2018: China transfers control of its coast guard from civilian oversight to the Central Military Commission, its top military body.
December 2019: Chinese government ships confirmed in the contiguous zone around the islands, just outside Japan’s territorial waters, surpass 1,000 for a new record.