China is no longer making a secret of its ambition to gain dominance over the western Pacific as it sends its warships into Japanese territorial waters and contiguous zones. Behind these actions lies Beijing’s cunning calculation of the international community’s reactions.

When a Chinese naval vessel recently invaded Japanese territorial waters near Kuchinoerabu Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, Beijing insisted that the area constituted an “international strait” through which any ship can pass — thus resorting to a “legal warefare” for the first time.

With Japan unable to make a rebuttal, China’s propaganda could very well impact global public opinion.

Meanwhile the Japanese government is in a state of confusion as different ministries collect and analyze information on a Chinese warship’s entry into the contiguous zone adjacent to Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands. If China succeeds in building faits accomplis, the blue sea surrounding Japan may change color to Chinese red.

In response to a reporter’s question at a press conference in Beijing on June 17, Hua Chunying, deputy information department director of the Foreign Ministry, said sarcastically that the Japanese government and media should study international law before reacting to or reporting on a Chinese naval vessel’s invasion of Japanese territorial waters near Kuchinoerabu. Invasion is not the right word, Hua said, adding the Tokara Strait, through which the Chinese naval vessel passed, is an international passage.

Since that strait lies between Yakushima Island and the Tokara Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, her justification of the Chinese naval vessel passing through it represented the declaration of a legal war against Japan in a bid to turn the waters around Japan into waters through which Chinese vessels can freely navigate.

This type of legal warfare is a relatively new strategic concept initiated by the People’s Liberation Army in late 2003. Japan’s white paper on defense has interpreted this as (1) aiming to gain global support by capitalizing on international and domestic law and (2) preparing for possible criticism against China’s military actions.

To the north of Kuchinoerabu lies the Osumi Strait in an east-west direction, which the Japanese government has long recognized as an international strait. Any vessel is entitled to pass through it without giving prior notice to Japan. But the Chinese naval vessel, which was an information-gathering ship, dared to cross the Tokara Strait for the first time instead of passing through the Osumi Strait.

Japan has so far capitalized on international law to check moves by China but now it has obviously been perplexed by China’s similar actions.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines an international strait as (1) connecting international waters or exclusive economic zones and (2) being used for international navigation.

This definition is so simple and vague that it can be interpreted in any manner. If disputes crop up, they are deliberated at the International Court of Justice. But what has happened so far is that the position of whoever first claims a certain waterway to be an “international strait” prevails. There is no question that Beijing is taking advantage of this and trying to justify its actions globally.

When a submarine navigates in another country’s territorial waters, it is required to sail on the surface and hoist its national flag. But no such a rule applies when sailing through an international strait. Even if the entire international strait is within a country’s territorial waters, the country does not have the right to tell a submarine passing through the strait to surface and hoist its national flag.

In short, China is trying to justify its claim that the Tokara Strait constitutes an international strait while pretending to abide by international rules.

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani has gone no further than insisting that the Tokara Strait is not an international strait. But the Japanese government cannot fully explain why this is the case. This has led Tokyo to be on the defensive as it has decided not to lodge a protest with China against the invasion of Japanese territorial waters.

Instead, Kenji Kanasugi, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau, met with a high-ranking official of the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo to express Japan’s concerns over Chinese military activities in general.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that China is acting self-righteously by sending its ships into the contiguous zone near the Senkaku Islands and Japanese territorial waters around Kuchinoerabu.

For a couple of years following the nationalization of the Senkakus by Japan in September 2012, Chinese ships stayed 300 to 400 km away from the area, which is known to have oil reserves.

Those ships later started moving increasingly closer to the Senkakus, and in December 2014 they came within 70 to 80 km of the islands. A high-ranking official of the Maritime Self-Defense Force likened China’s moves to “unilaterally moving bus stops bit by bit.” There is no doubt, however, that the recent entry into the contiguous zone near the Senkakus is part of these moves.

But there is a way of thinking in the Japanese government that has never been expressed publicly. That stems from the fact that an MSDF vessel pursued Russian warships through the contiguous zone near the Senkakus.

It may seem only natural for an MSDF ship to pursue these Russian vessels, but a government insider says that since the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, it has been quite rare for an MSDF ship that is chasing Russian vessels to enter the contiguous zone.

In the past, when the MSDF noticed Russian warships entering the contiguous zone, it waited until the Russians ships moved out of the zone and then MSDF ships or anti-submarine patrol aircraft started putting them under surveillance, according to a former Defense Ministry official.

A Foreign Ministry source said that neither the Defense Ministry nor the Self-Defense Forces, citing security reasons, would reveal how many times MSDF ships entered the contiguous zone near the Senkakus or details of their actions.

If the MSDF has broken with the past practice of not sending its vessels into the contiguous zone, the source says, an MSDF ship entering the zone this time could have provoked China and given it a good excuse to send its ship to the same zone. This means that with the MSDF ship entering into the zone in pursuit of the Russian vessels, Japan has played right into the hands of China, whose ship was approaching the area to the north of the Senkakus, the source explained.

This view is strongly denied by a former MSDF commander, who says that in the past, Chinese ships were deployed in an area far away from the Senkaku Islands, making it difficult for them to enter the contiguous zone, but that this time the Chinese ship was getting closer and was prepared to enter the zone at any time.

There is even a possibility that if the MSDF had refrained from sending its vessel into the contiguous zone, a Chinese vessel might have entered the same zone anyhow, on the pretext that it was chasing Russian vessels that entered the contiguous zone adjacent to Chinese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, which China also claims.

In any case, the “offense and defense” game between Japan and China has shifted to a new stage. China is trying to increase the frequency of its naval maneuvers so that Japan will get used to them and resign itself to them.

China’s eventual aim is not its relations with Japan but with the United States. In June 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.S. President Barack Obama that the Pacific Ocean is large enough to accommodate both of the two superpowers, clearly challenging American dominance.

Three years later, Xi has launched full-scale actions in earnest — to secure sea corridors near the Japanese archipelago through which Chinese vessels can move freely to enter the Pacific Ocean — a prerequisite for China gaining control over the ocean.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English-language versions of magazine articles can be read at this site: www.sentaku-en.com

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