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Escalation in the Senkaku Islands? It's China's Choice

As China continues to rachet up pressure on the Senkaku Islands, Japan and the US must further assert their presence, including with personnel on the Senkakus.



Senkaku Islands in the town of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture.

It has been nearly 15 years since the Chinese started moving in on Japan's Senkaku Islands. Chinese pressure is indeed troublesome, but for now, it's manageable – even if the Japan Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) are overstretched. 

The Japanese have patiently dealt with near-daily aggression and pressure from Chinese naval, coast guard, maritime militia, and fishing vessels as well as regular aerial intrusions into Japanese territory.  

The PRC would like nothing more than for the Japanese to fire ー even just one shot. Beijing would then claim they were provoked into "defending" themselves. Japan has not taken the bait, however.  

Things have not blown up.

But it's best not to assume this state of affairs will continue in the same mode for another 15 years. Or 15 months, or even 15 days.

A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat responding to Chinese government vessels and maritime militia “fishing boats” starting their process of "flooding the zone" along the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands. Ishigaki City, Okinawa. (August 2016, provided by the Japan Coast Guard)

What is the likelihood that this somewhat manageable Chinese grey zone activity escalates into something worse?

The likelihood is high. And it is up to the Chinese.

The escalation move might be either "flooding the zone" tactics or actual shooting. Although the former could of course lead to the latter.

For now, however, the  "kinetic" option is less likely, unless it's in conjunction with an attack on Taiwan

More likely, China will keep increasing the pressure – with more ships, boats, and aircraft in more places and more often around the Senkakus. For now, the People's Republic of China is aiming to reach a point where it simply absorbs the Senkakus by "osmosis."  

The Chinese have "flooded the zone" before with dozens or more fishing boats – backed by the Chinese Coast Guard. And with the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) on-call. 


These were warnings to Tokyo that it can do it again – with even more boats – anytime it wants.

At some point – and in the not-so-distant future – when China decides the "time is right" the Japanese defenders could be overwhelmed. 

And at that point, Japan will have some hard choices to make. By itself, it will have a very hard time rolling back the Chinese.

Japan is counting on American support.

US-Japan Air Drills near Senkaku Islands in 2017. (Courtesy photo/Japan Air Self-Defense Force)

Will the Americans pitch in over the Senkakus?

They have said they would.

It is now well understood that Washington considers the Senkakus to fall under the Japan-US Security Treaty. United States officials have made this clear repeatedly since the Obama administration.

The Japan-US Security treaty language says that the treaty – and America's obligation to defend Japan – applies to areas under Japan's "administrative control."  That includes the Senkakus – which the US considers under Japanese administrative control – even if Washington takes no position on actual ownership.

Remember that in the aforementioned Chinese strategy  "flooding the zone" aims to put such a large number of ships around the Senkakus that they can make a move – to include landing people on the Senkakus - and claim they (not the Japanese) have "administrative control."

The US needs to make a firm decision – immediately – that the Senkakus are Japanese territory. And not merely under  "administrative control."

This split-the-difference approach simply encourages the PRC to think it can get its way if it creates "realities on the ground" and elbows the Japanese out of the way.

US Marines Long-range missiles
The US Army's "HIMARS" rocket artillery system (left) which was first deployed to the Nansei Islands, and the JGSDF "Type 12 surface-to-ship guided missile." August 31, 2022 GSDF Camp Amami (© Sankei by Toyohiro Ichioka)

What would it take to make US (and Japanese) policy on the Senkakus crystal clear?

Chinese encroachments on the Senkakus are the logical outcome of a vacillating if not incoherent US policy regarding the Senkakus. That has been superbly documented by Dr Robert Eldridge

Until about 2009 or 2010 the United States government didn't even give much thought to the Senkakus. But when the Chinese started applying pressure on the Senkakus the Americans had to address the issue. The Japanese of course insisted that the US make a clear statement regarding the islands. 


To Tokyo, the Senkakus are not a disposable group of rocks in the middle of the ocean.

If the US does not help Japan defend the Senkakus, it might fatally damage Japan-US security and political relationships. And Washington mostly understands this.

It would of course be helpful – indeed, appropriate - if Tokyo was similarly committed about its own obligations to help the US defend Taiwan. It currently is not.

From a military perspective, US military planners understand the importance of the Japanese-controlled Senkakus to US military operations in the region. The Senkakus under Chinese control would greatly complicate and threaten US military operations in the area and in support of Taiwan.

China of course knows this.

Senkaku Islands
The Tokai University research team checks images sent from a drone to the research vessel on January 30. (© Sankei by Hiroshi Kawase)

What to do?

The Americans and Japanese ought to be conducting joint air and naval patrols and exercises around the Senkakus. They should furthermore be expanding nascent joint training in the broader Nansei Shoto region. 

In fact, the entire defense of the southern islands should be a fully joint US-JSDF effort. That is from command and control down to tactical levels.

And Japan and the US should put personnel on the Senkakus themselves.  

Also, there are two military firing ranges in the waters near the Senkakus that the Americans have the right to use under the Japan-US security treaty – and these are particularly valuable to honing naval and air gunnery skills.  

However, US forces have not used the ranges since the Carter Administration. The idea was to placate the Chinese and get better behavior from Beijing. The Americans should realize by now that this hasn't worked. They should use the ranges and invite the JSDF along as well.

Let Beijing know that this is all regular, lawful, and nothing to worry about. 


The political and psychological benefits of such actions would be considerable – and would be in direct proportion to how loudly Beijing howls.

Beijing will decide whether a fight breaks out around the Senkakus. 

But the Americans and the Japanese need to hurry and do what's necessary to convince the PRC it will lose such a fight. And also convince Beijing that its gray zone "osmosis strategy" won't work either. 


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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