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The Senkaku Islands: What's Coming?

To counter China, the US and Japan need to make defense of the Ryukyu and the Senkaku Islands a joint affair and use their foreign investment power as a weapon.



Senkaku Islands of Okinawa (September 2013)

When the People's Republic of China (PRC) wants something that belongs to someone else, it is persistent and pushes to get what it wants. And it's willing to use force if necessary. Japan knows the feeling when it comes to its Senkaku Islands at the southern end of the Ryukyu chain. They are closer to Shanghai than to Tokyo. The PRC claims the islands as its own – referring to them as the Diaoyu Islands.

Given the PRC's increasingly violent behavior as it seeks to control Philippine maritime territory, it is worth taking stock of the Senkaku situation.

A Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel closely shadows a China Coast Guard ship (right), maintaining tight surveillance and protecting the Japanese research vessel off the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City in Okinawa. April 27, 2024, at 8:29 AM (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Swarming and 'Osmosis'

China fully intends to take the Senkakus...when the time is right. For the last 15 years the Chinese have been gradually expanding their naval presence, in terms of frequency, location, and numbers and types of ships and boats involved.

We've seen China Coast Guard, People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia, 'regular' fishing boats, and other Chinese government agency ships, with the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN, or Chinese Navy) lurking close by. Even Chinese aircraft have intruded into Japanese airspace around the Senkakus.

It will be "more things in more places and more often" and more frequently in Japan's territorial waters. In other words, within 12 miles of the Senkaku Islands. At some point Japan will find it simply doesn't have the ships and resources to contain Chinese incursions. 

China will have taken the Senkakus by "osmosis" rather than by storm.

Several times over the past decade the Chinese have "flooded the zone" with fishing boats. To include a couple hundred or more boats around the Senkakus ー backed up by China Coast Guard (CCG) ships. And with the PLAN over the horizon.

Beijing was demonstrating that whenever it wants it can assert "administrative control" over the Senkakus. And there is nothing the overmatched Japan Coast Guard can do about it. The treaty, and specifically US obligations to defend Japan, only applies to areas under Japanese "administrative control."

One envisions a scenario whereby China makes a political decision and swarms the area with ships and boats. It puts people ashore on the Senkakus, and warns the Japanese to stand clear or "it's war."

Chinese Coast Guard vessels fire water cannons towards a Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah. May 4, Near Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, March 5, 2024.(©REUTERS/Adrian Portugal)

China Treads Carefully

But Japan can defend itself better than can the Philippines. It has a strong Coast Guard and navy, though Chinese ship numbers now outmatch the Japanese by far. And the numbers gap is expanding. Also, the newer China Coast Guard boats are as big as destroyers and built for fighting. Japan Coast Guard ships are not.

But Japan can also use its foreign investment in China as a weapon. Cutting off Japanese investment, business activity and technology exports to China would harm the PRC.

The Philippines has no similar leverage.

Thus one understands the relatively less aggressive Chinese approach (for now) around the Senkakus. That is, compared to what it's doing in Philippine waters ー even if the end objectives are the same.

The Chinese would like nothing more than for the Japanese to fire a shot – just one shot - at a Chinese boat. Then they could claim to be the aggrieved party and step up their presence and behave even more aggressively. That would include shooting at the Japanese and landing on the islands, saying, "we had no choice."

A China Coast Guard ship intrudes into Japanese territorial waters, approaching within approximately one kilometer of Uotsuri Island, Ishigaki City, Okinawa on the morning of April 27. (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Moving Beyond 15 Years of 'Patience'

Japan prides itself on not having "taken the bait." Instead, it responds professionally and firmly in challenging all Chinese intrusions. This gets tiring as Japan has kept it up for almost 15 years now.

Will the Japanese use armed force at some point ー rather than just shadowing and blocking Chinese ships and ordering them to leave Japanese territory? Maybe.

But one suspects that by the time Tokyo decides to do so it will be too late. By then, they'll face a fait accompli with the Chinese (and the PLAN) parked right offshore of the islands in large numbers and refusing to move. Meanwhile, a landing party occupies the islands. And Beijing threatens all-out war ー to include nukes.

How To Keep This From Happening?

The US and the Japanese need to make defense of the Ryukyus and the Senkakus a joint affair. With US Navy ships and US aircraft operating together with Japanese forces and Coast Guard on a regular basis.

And eject any Chinese ships that come into territorial waters around the Senkakus.

This would be far more effective than the regular US pronouncements that the defense treaty applies to the Senkakus.

We've seen how well such pronouncements work in the case of the Philippines. And they haven't restrained the Chinese behavior around the Senkakus so much.

From Beijing's perspective, bullying the Japanese is one thing ー and they enjoy doing it. But bullying the Japanese when US forces are present is another thing.

The risk equation is very different in the latter case, assuming the Americans have the nerve to take on the Chinese.

New EVs are lined up at the port of Xiamen, Fujian Province, China, waiting to be exported. (©Xinhua News Agency/Kyodo)

Add Economic Pressure

And as part of a "Senkakus strategy," both Tokyo and Washington should coordinate on applying economic and financial pressure and technology export restrictions on China.

Applying pressure from these directions is better than just trying to match whatever ships, boats, or aircraft China puts into the area around the Senkakus. China has the numbers to play that game better.

So make Beijing play another "game" as well that applies real pressure where it hurts ー ie, the economy.

And to make it hurt even more, expose the immense overseas wealth of the Chinese Communist Party's top officials.

One thing is for certain...China has said it intends to take the Senkakus. (That's for starters, since they've also claimed the rest of the Ryukyu Islands.) And one should take Xi Jinping at his word and respond accordingly.

Beijing is not going to give up unless presented with a solid, unyielding Japanese and American defense.

There is no deal to be cut.


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."