It seems like every few months an article appears in the Western press claiming Japan-China relations are thawing. Read enough of these over the years and one is inclined to reply, “They always are and they never are.”
Japan and China are heading for trouble. It’s just taken a while to get there.
While North Korea gets most of the attention these days, in the East China Sea a momentous collision is approaching. This is where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) aims to humiliate and remove Japan as a threat to Chinese domination of Asia. And China’s claim to Japan’s Senkaku islands is a convenient excuse for picking this fight.
One objective for China’s rapid military buildup over the last two decades is to gain control of the East China Sea—and the Senkakus.
The PRC prefers doing this via “osmosis”—putting so many aircraft and ships (including Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels) into the area, and doing it so often that Japanese forces are unable to respond.
Under the scenario, a then-exasperated Tokyo agrees to cut a deal. The Chinese might also decide to land “civilians” or Coast Guard personnel on the uninhabited Senkakus—“to aid navigation and rescue fishermen”—and dare the Japanese to do something about it.
The Japanese military recognizes, based on current trends, that China will be able to “swarm” them within a few years, and perhaps can do so today.
In recent years the Chinese have sent hundreds of fishing boats to the Senkakus and also the Ogasawara Islands—backed up by the Chinese Coast Guard, with the PLA-Navy over the horizon. The purpose: to give the Japanese a taste of what’s coming whenever China decides it’s time. Japan has been hard-pressed to respond, both militarily and politically. This will not get any easier.
But if osmosis doesn’t work, the PLA (on Party orders) is preparing for a “short, sharp war” to teach the Japanese a lesson and even seize the Senkakus or another piece of Japanese territory. China may not be quite ready for war, but in a few years, it will be.
Japanese military and civilian leaders know they have a problem in the East China Sea, but have been slow to respond. Recent efforts to fortify the Nansei Shoto (also known as the Ryukyus), though, are a start.
And the Senkakus are more than just a “few rocks”—as commentators often claim. If China controls the Senkakus and the East China Sea, it can sever Japanese sea lines of communication and trade to Southeast Asia and onwards to the Middle East and Europe. That is an existential threat to Japanese independence.
But can’t this be resolved through negotiations? That’s psychologically difficult, as it requires one side to admit it is inferior to the other. The Japanese would have to give up some territory or the Chinese would have to admit their claims are invalid—or the PRC is too weak to enforce them
So, will Japan fight? Maybe. There is a constituency in Japan’s political world that prefers appeasement. But another constituency does not. And public opinion appears mostly ill-disposed towards the PRC. Even the Asahi Shimbun newspaper—otherwise willing to placate China on every score—appears reluctant to allow the Chinese to take the Senkakus.
If a Japanese administration makes its case, the public just might support a forceful military effort to counter PRC aggression. Even now, the increasing efforts of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in the Nansei Shoto appear to have public support, or at least evoke little public opposition.
American Problem, Too
Of course, the Chinese claim to the East China Sea and Senkakus is cynical and opportunistic. The Chinese only made an issue of the Senkakus from about 2009.
But this really doesn’t matter. Lashing out over concocted territorial claims is a classic ploy for dictatorial regimes seeking to rally public support—and to distract from domestic problems.
Events in the East China Sea also test the United States’ commitment to a reliable and longstanding ally.
America either lives up to its commitment to defend Japan on the basis of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, or it does not. If it does not, and an ally is left fending for itself against a powerful enemy, U.S. treaty commitments worldwide will be in doubt, as both friends and enemies will note.
And there’s more.
Should China gain uncontested control of East China Sea, Taiwan will be doomed without a herculean effort by the Americans and the Japanese. If Taiwan “falls,” the entire U.S. position in Asia will collapse with it, owing to the loss of Taiwan’s “strategic geography.” As importantly, Taiwan will no longer serve as an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party–by virtue of its vibrant democracy and consensual government that rebukes CCP claims that Chinese people can only be ruled with a boot on the neck.
The East China Sea is a huge test for Japan—and the Americans. The Japanese need to spend much more on defense. But until then, they can better employ the considerable resources they already have.
Towards this end they might establish a permanent Joint Task Force (JTF) to defend the Nansei Shoto and Japanese territory in the East China Sea. Doing so will require the JSDF services to finally cooperate with each other beyond their limited capabilities today.
By themselves the Japanese will be hard-pressed to take on Chinese aggression. Thus, Japanese and U.S. forces need to completely integrate for East China Sea-Nansei Shoto defense. This should start with a regular series of patrols, exercises, and joint-operations, and basing in the Nansei Shoto and surrounding areas.
The JTF should be a joint Japanese and American show, fully linked and integrated. The headquarters will fit nicely at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Courtney on Okinawa, adjacent to the III MEF headquarters.
Along with this military effort, Washington needs to quietly inform Beijing that aggression or even a continued “osmosis” strategy against Japan will bring in the United States.
So, while Kim Jong Un dominates the headlines, bigger trouble is coming in the East China Sea. Japan and the U.S. shouldn’t lose sight of this, and can’t afford to waste any more time. With some effort—and a little luck—they just might convince the PRC to back off.