The understanding reached between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping to pursue high-level contacts is unlikely to stem China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace. But it will allow Xi’s regime to blend engagement with containment, including challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands and strengthening Chinese claims of sovereignty over them.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposed visit to Tokyo will likely have the same core agenda that his recent trip to Europe had — to avert economic decoupling from China and dissuade U.S. allies from supporting Washington’s moves to impose checks on the exercise of Chinese power. China, however, is unwilling to curb its economic and territorial expansionism.
In fact, Xi continues to push the boundaries, as underscored by the multiple fronts he has opened simultaneously, including in the East and South China seas, the Himalayan frontier, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yet, Xi has sought to portray China as a country of peace, telling the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, “We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot war with any country. We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation.”
Xi’s words rang hollow, especially as they came amid the border aggression he has launched against India since April, when the People’s Liberation Army made stealth encroachments on the highlands of Indian Ladakh. The intrusions have triggered a major India-China military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Tokyo and Hanoi.
There are important parallels between the way China is pursuing its territorial revisionism against its two main rivals in Asia, Japan and India. Indeed, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition and containment against both.
More fundamentally, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive territorial claims in Asia on the basis of revisionist history, not international law. Its weak legal case was highlighted by an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling that invalidated its claims in the South China Sea.
In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. There is absolutely no evidence that China ever had effective control over, for example, the Senkaku Islands.
In fact, China began claiming the Senkakus only after a United Nations agency’s report in 1969 referred to the possible existence of oil reserves in the East China Sea. It was not until the early 1970s that Chinese documents began applying the name “Diaoyu” to the Senkakus and claiming they were part of China.
Sinicizing the names of territories it claims is an old tactic of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP’s record also reveals its penchant to create a dispute out of the blue by claiming that the territory it covets was part of China since ancient times.
Under Xi, China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace have steadily intensified, not just in frequency but also with the entry of larger vessels and armed ships. In recent months, China has sought to even police the waters off the Senkakus.
If history is not to be repeated, Suga should draw some lessons, including from the record of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
The first lesson is that establishing better relations with Beijing doesn’t necessarily yield better Chinese behavior. Xi’s aggressive revisionism is unaffected by diplomatic progress.
For example, Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing was instrumental in helping improve ties with China. Yet the ensuing diplomatic progress, far from reining in China’s aggressive actions, engendered increasing Chinese intrusions, including the longest series of incursions into Japanese waters in years.
A second lesson is that responding with notable restraint to China’s belligerence only encourages Beijing to further up the ante. Consider the startling fact that no Japanese defense minister has ever conducted an aerial survey of the Senkakus. In August, the then-defense minister, Taro Kono, decided to break that taboo but then backed off “so as not to provoke China.”
Such shrinking from purely defensive action explains why an emboldened China has stepped up incursions. Japan needs to strengthen its administrative and security control over the Senkakus.
A third lesson relates to China’s strategy. Deception, concealment and surprise are central to China’s strategy to win without fighting. It adheres to the ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.”
This approach involves taking an adversary by surprise, including seizing an opportunistic timing, and camouflaging offense as defense.
China’s war of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus has already disturbed the status quo, including by making the international community recognize the existence of a dispute and by regularizing Chinese incursions. China persists with its recklessly provocative actions, including ignoring the risk that an incident could spiral out of control.
A fourth lesson is that as long as China perceives strategic benefits as outweighing costs, Xi will persist with his strategy of attrition against Japan. Xi’s strategy is imposing greater security costs on Japan than on China.
Against this background, a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could conceivably come when Japan has been lulled into complacency and least expects an attack. This is what happened to India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not see the Chinese aggression coming because his vision had been clouded by the naive hope that, by meeting Xi 18 times in about five years, he had reset the bilateral relationship.
China’s aim against Japan is to progressively alter the territorial status quo in its favor. Despite the Suga-Xi understanding, Chinese provocations could escalate.
Japan has spent years being on the defensive, allowing China to keep the initiative. It is past time for Tokyo to come out of its reactive mode and turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively. It must frustrate China’s strategy of incrementally altering the status quo without incurring substantive costs.
Japan ought to look at ways to impose costs. This could include first warning Beijing that its provocative actions, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels within Japanese territorial waters, would henceforth be firmly countered. If provocative actions persist despite the warning, the Japan Coast Guard could selectively act against some intruding Chinese state ships.
To be sure, effectively countering Chinese incursions demands more than ramming or disabling intruding ships and detaining their crews. It calls for an important shift in Japan’s policies, including building defensive facilities in the Senkakus. Japan could begin modestly by building an environmental monitoring station in the Senkakus.
China, of course, will react furiously to any Japanese counteractions. But at a time when the international environment is turning hostile to Xi’s expansionism, Japan must display strength and resolve. If not, China will bring Japanese security under increasing pressure in the coming years.
Japan has a strong case, anchored in international law, that it has exercised sovereignty over the Senkakus since 1895. But make no mistake: The future of the Senkakus will not be decided by international law, even though a just, rules-based order is essential for international peace and security.
The South China Sea is a reminder that international law is powerless against the powerful. China has turned its contrived historical claims in the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite the international tribunal’s ruling against it.
Japan undoubtedly faces hard choices. But accommodation with an unyielding China is simply not possible.
Without concrete counteractions, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism. To stop its security from coming under siege, Japan must act — with calm, confidence and firmness.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” and winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.