(Last of Two Parts)
China implements its coercive posturing strategy by surrounding the Senkakus with layers of Chinese power. Physical and non-physical instruments of national power, ranging from ships to bases to legal arguments to media blitzes, exert varying degrees of influence to advance Beijing’s goals. By applying unremitting pressure, China seeks to weaken Japan’s capacity to shape events at sea while eroding Tokyo’s will to resist.
China’s Layered Posture
The regular intrusions of the China Coast Guard (CCG) into the contiguous zone (24 nm) and the territorial seas (12 nm) of the islands represent the first layer of China’s coercive posture around the Senkakus. Since the first incursion in September 2012, China has gradually ratcheted up the pressure by progressively deploying more — and more capable — vessels per patrol while sending new ships of ever-larger displacement and sophistication. Although largely unreported, cutters also lurked outside the contiguous zone, maintaining a recessed presence around the islands. Each incursion has forced the Japan Coast Guard to scramble its ships to warn off the Chinese, testing the maritime service’s resolve and physical endurance.
Another arm of Chinese seapower, the maritime militia and the fishing fleet, forms a further layer around the Senkakus. These government-sanctioned flotillas can be called on to probe Japan’s defenses, raise tensions, and swarm the waters around the disputed islands. In August 2016, about 200 to 300 Chinese fishing vessels along with an unusually large contingent of coast guard cutters, including an armed one, appeared near the Senkakus and repeatedly entered the territorial seas over three days. The incident demonstrated China’s capacity to overwhelm Japanese defenders by surging a large, combined fleet.
The PLAN acts as a backstop or an outer ring to the coast guard, maritime militia, and fishing fleets, performing overwatch duty just beyond the horizon for these frontline paramilitary units. However, Chinese naval vessels have begun inching ever closer to the disputed features. In June 2016, the Japanese spotted a Jiangkai-class frigate in the contiguous zone. In January 2018, a Jiangkai-class frigate and a Shang-class nuclear attack submarine sailed through the contiguous zone, drawing a sharp rebuke from Tokyo.
The PLAN has also undertaken dangerous measures against Japanese forces near the disputed features. In January 2013, during two separate incidents, two Chinese warships — a Jiangkai-class frigate and a Jiangwei-class frigate — locked their fire control radars onto a Japanese helicopter and destroyer respectively. These encounters triggered an uproar in Tokyo while Beijing flatly denied that such provocations ever took place. The Chinese have not repeated such stunts, but these incidents demonstrate the potential for rapid escalation in a crisis and show that the initiative likely lies with the Chinese navy to fire the first salvo should deterrence fail.
China’s basing infrastructure for the coast guard, the maritime militia, the fishing fleet, the navy, and the air force constitutes another layer of maritime power wrapped around the Senkakus. In a contest of wills at sea, proximity to the scene of action matters, as it determines the responsiveness and staying power of the fleet.
In 2015, China unveiled development plans for the Wenzhou Command and Comprehensive Logistics Base, which included the buildup of a large-scale training base, six new pier spaces with at least one capable of handling 10,000-ton ships, hangars for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, and a headquarters building totaling $515 million USD. The home to the CCG’s 11th Flotilla is about 350 km northwest of the Senkakus. By comparison, Naha, Okinawa is nearly 420 km from the disputed features.
The Chinese have also expanded military facilities near the disputed islands. The Japanese media has reported the construction of radar sites, airstrips, and a naval pier on Nanji Island, located 300 km northwest of the Senkakus. In May 2018, it was reported that an airbase in Xiapu, Fujian Province, had undergone a substantial upgrade, including new aircraft shelters, taxiways, and buildings. These new or newly enhanced positions would enable Chinese forces to more quickly reach the Senkakus and stay on station longer than their Japanese counterparts. Such geographic encroachments are likely to impose ever-heavier strains on Japanese defenders as they labor under greater distances to the theater of operations.
Beyond the material dimensions of the competition, China has declared jurisdictional and economic rights over large swaths of the East China Sea that pointedly include the Senkakus. Beijing claims an exclusive economic zone that extends to the Okinawa trough just off the western coast of Japan’s Southwest Islands. In November 2013, China established an air defense identification zone covering vast portions of the East China Sea and the Senkakus. These two overlapping zones confer an aura of legitimacy to Chinese territorial assertions about the disputed islands. Moreover, they provide a patina of legal and jurisdictional authority, however dubious, to engage in the types of law enforcement actions summarized above.
Beijing has also waged a sustained strategic communications campaign to normalize the new status quo and to send a clear message: Tokyo must learn to live with Chinese seapower in the East China Sea and around the Senkakus. Beijing has regularly issued public statements conveying an impression of normalcy even as China threw its weight around at sea. Whenever the China Coast Guard sends its patrol ships to the Senkaku Islands, the dispatch is announced on government websites and dutifully reported in the Chinese media. The Chinese government has similarly insisted that PLA naval and air activities near Japan and transits through Japanese straits are normal, routine activities.
China has also sought to socialize the public at home and overseas audiences about the new status quo. When the Senkakus crisis erupted, China Daily, the English-language mouthpiece of the CCP, took out full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post asserting Chinese sovereignty over the Senkakus. To advance Beijing’s argument, Chinese news outlets regularly cite analysts, scholars, and retired military officers, who invariably parrot the government’s views.
Social media has emerged as yet another instrument for mobilizing public opinion. Retired officers-turned-firebrand “talking heads,” including Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong, Senior Colonel Dai Xu, and Major General Luo Yuan, were permitted to create their own Weibo (a Chinese microblog) accounts from which to taunt and otherwise threaten Japan. Chinese state media has also turned to social media to stoke public anger against Japan.
Beijing has not hesitated to deny inconvenient facts or to engage in disinformation campaigns. As noted above, Chinese authorities refused to admit that their combatants illuminated a Japanese helicopter and destroyer with fire-control radar in early 2013. Similarly, government websites were conspicuously silent about the major confrontation that took place in August 2016 when Chinese coast guard cutters and fishing vessels swarmed around the Senkakus. Disinformation was clearly at play.
In sum, China has wrapped layers of paramilitary, civilian, military, and infrastructure power around the Senkakus while overlaying zones of regulatory authority and of economic rights over the islands. At the same time, Beijing has launched an information campaign in print media, in cyberspace, and over the airwaves to manipulate perceptions at home and abroad. The integration and coordination of these various implements of national power suggest that Japan faces a formidable competitor with the will and the means to contest the Senkakus for the long haul.
An Assessment of Chinese Strategy
Beijing’s coercive posturing has achieved some of its more immediate aims. First, the coast guard patrols have demonstrated China’s de facto joint administration of the waters around the Senkakus, even if Tokyo continues to deny that a dispute exists. China has judged correctly that realities at sea are far more persuasive than Japan’s diplomatic denial. Second, China’s paramilitary, naval, and air activities near the islands have tested and probed Japanese defenses, helping the Chinese assess its rival’s posture and readiness. Moreover, the protracted Chinese campaign of intrusions, sorties, and occasional surges have worn down Japanese defenders at the tactical and operational levels.
Third, Chinese official and media channels have normalized China’s presence and activism in the East China Sea and socialized domestic and foreign audiences to a new reality through its disciplined information campaign. Coast guard intrusions no longer merit front-page coverage in Japanese media, and the Japanese public has come to accept the new normal. Perhaps an element of Chinese strategy is to induce complacency among the elites and the public alike. Fourth, China’s unrelenting peacetime offensive has kept Japan off balance while the correlation of forces continues to shift in Beijing’s favor. This bodes ill for Japan’s longer-term position as the tug-of-war continues.
Finally, Chinese probes have precluded galvanizing “Sputnik” moments or potentially catastrophic showdowns. China has applied just enough pressure without crossing the threshold of escalation and subsequent U.S. intervention. This approach deprives Tokyo the kinds of political capital necessary to harness its resources for competition and develop more potent countervailing strategies. This ambiguity about the course and destination of the stalemate has benefited China.
Looking ahead, it is possible that Chinese coercive posturing is merely an interim strategy to fulfill Beijing’s long-term regional goals. Over time China may acquire the confidence, capacity, and capability to maintain a constant rotational presence around the Senkakus, if it has not already. A more muscular form of coercive posturing would open new strategic vistas for Beijing. Would it keep coast guard vessels on station indefinitely to demonstrate the futility of resistance and thereby force Tokyo to the negotiating table? Even acknowledging the territories’ disputed status would constitute a major victory for China.
Or, would China create a situation to which Japan must react and thereby trigger escalation? An alternative pathway following a Chinese decision to keep a standing maritime cordon around the Senkakus is illustrative: faced with the prospect of ceding administrative control to the Chinese, Japan could be backed into exercising military options to expel the China Coast Guard. Would Beijing seize on such a Japanese reaction as the rationale for a short, sharp war to teach Tokyo a lesson and terminate the stalemate decisively in its favor? Should a war at sea break out, a Chinese victory could upend the regional order to which the United States and its allies have grown accustomed.
Given Beijing’s ambitions and ascendant power, it is prudent to entertain the possibility, however seemingly remote today, that Chinese strategy might take such a radical turn. It thus behooves policy makers to pay close attention to China’s coercive posturing and to early indicators that Japan could come under even greater, if not unbearable, Chinese pressure at sea.
This two-part article, drawn from a recent study entitled “Stealing A March,” is republished with minor editorial changes with permission. The full report is available at this link.
Author: Toshi Yoshihara
Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
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