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A coast guard-maintained peace in the East China Sea

by Yoichi Funabashi

The Chinese Coast Guard has assigned its huge new patrol vessel, the CCG 2901, to its eastern division, which controls activities in the East China Sea. The CCG 2901 has a displacement of 12,000 tons — far surpassing in scale the Japan Coast Guard’s Shikishima and Akitsushima patrol boats, which belong to the world’s top tier of coast guard vessels, with full displacements of 6,500 tons.

The Chinese reverence for size and abundance explains the country’s tendency to believe that anything “bigger is better.” But as it rises to a superpower status, China has begun to assume a more fiercely aggressive stance toward its rivals, as if to say that “being bigger also means being more important.”

Dubbed “the monster” by the Chinese media, the new coast guard vessel is one component of China’s broader strategy to inspire shock and awe. U.S. Navy Adm. Harry Harris, head of the United States Pacific Command, has noted that the CCG 2901, which was “designed purely for ramming attacks on other vessels,” is “bigger than the Arleigh Burke destroyer” of the U.S. Navy, which has a total displacement of 9,500 tons.

As law enforcement organs of their respective countries, the Japan Coast Guard and the China Coast Guard are competing for a presence in the seas surrounding the Senkaku Islands in order to demonstrate that the islands fall under their own jurisdiction.

In the process, the Chinese have begun to expand their presence near the Senkakus based on a “3-3-2” formula: three times every month, three Chinese patrol boats enter the waters surrounding the Senkakus, for as long as two hours on each incursion — before they depart after receiving a warning from the Japanese side. Both the Chinese and Japanese sides occasionally let each other know that they’re keeping watch militarily — both in the air and sea. But they have also built up, bit by bit, a mechanism for coast guard-maintained status quo that avoids escalating the tensions militarily.

Then comes China’s new “monster” vessel. What will change with the deployment of the CCG 2901?

First, the annual “typhoon season truce,” which has heretofore provided both sides with a resting period, may come to an end. Up until now, Chinese ships have stayed away from the Senkaku waters whenever a typhoon approached. However, larger ships may remain in place despite an incoming typhoon. A larger vessel is not only better able to withstand the stormy seas, but can be equipped with more fuel and water supplies, allowing it to remain at sea for longer periods of time.

However, size cannot necessarily be equated with strength. Is an elephant really stronger than a tiger? Larger ships can be less agile in an encounter with an enemy. Both exhaustion and complaints may grow as crew members spend more days at sea at a time. In short, the various advantages conferred by timing, territory, and the abilities and quality of an organization, together with the sense of duty among its personnel, all remain decisive factors.

A more serious issue is the very real potential for a transition from equipping the coast guard vessels with the type of weapons employed within the scope of law enforcement — in other words, the exercise of policing — to equipping the vessels with more military-style weaponry. CCG 2901 is fitted with a 76 mm gun as its main armament, which clearly demonstrates the vessel’s fighting capability. The 76 mm gun has a firing range of 5 to 8 km. It is typically mounted on naval destroyers or frigates, and can destroy or shoot down enemy ships, aircraft or missiles, making it a powerful form of naval artillery.

It is expected that by 2020, both the CCG 2901 and its sister ship, the CCG 3901, will be continuously deployed to the East and South China Seas. They may also patrol the Bashi Channel to the south of Taiwan.

It has been reported that the Chinese Coast Guard is currently building large-scale bases to support these new patrol vessels in the port city of Wenzhou and on the Nanji islands. These new bases will be 350 km and 300 km, respectively, from the Senkaku Islands — whereas Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, is 420 km from the Senkakus.

And while the Japan Coast Guard is by law not a military entity, from its inception the Chinese Coast Guard has belonged to the Chinese military (the People’s Armed Police). We thus cannot dismiss the possibility of the continued militarization of China’s maritime defense. A new form of geopolitics is emerging with regard to the Senkaku Islands.

Nevertheless, at present it seems unlikely that China has any desire to resolve the tensions over the Senkaku Islands through a military conflict. This dictates that an overreaction to the Chinese moves is not the right choice for Japan. It would not be in Japan’s best interests to escalate its response — such as by equipping the Japan Coast Guard with a bare-fanged King Kong to fight the “fire-breathing dragon” CCG 2901, or by having the Maritime Self-Defense Force take over from the coast guard to confront the Chinese vessels.

We must do everything in our power to find a way of further entrenching a peace that can be maintained by the coast guards of China and Japan. While military coercion and diplomatic handshakes are also established methods of conflict resolution, in this case we should seek to maintain the current status quo, in which national coast guards are deployed for the purpose of law enforcement. This will not address the root of the problem, but it is infinitely preferable to a military clash.

This approach is drawing the attention of Southeast Asian countries, many of which are also involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. After all, if it proves possible for the Japanese and Chinese coast guards to ease tensions in the East China Sea, the same might prove true in the South China Sea as well.

If President Xi Jinping is truthful in his assertion that China will not militarize its man-made islands in the South China Sea, then “a peace maintained by the coast guards” should be made the specific articulation of this vision for non-militarization. We must develop a new form of maritime Asian diplomacy that fully envelopes China in its reach.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju. The foundation has published a new book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism).