China’s naval and paramilitary ships are churning up the ocean around islands it disputes with Tokyo in what experts say is a strategy to overwhelm the numerically inferior Japanese forces that must sail out to detect and track the flotillas.
A daily stream of bulletins announce ship deployments into the East China Sea, naval combat exercises, the launch of new warships and commentaries calling for resolute defense of Chinese territory.
“The operational goal in the East China Sea is to wear out the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Japan Coast Guard,” said James Holmes, a maritime strategy expert at the US Naval War College, Rhode Island.
It was not until China became embroiled in the high stakes territorial dispute with Japan late last year that its secretive military opened up.
Now, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is routinely telegraphing its moves around the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which are also claimed by Taiwan, and are known as the Senkakus in Japan.
News of these missions also has domestic propaganda value for Beijing because it demonstrates that the Chinese Communist Party has the power and determination to defend what it insists has always been Chinese territory, political analysts said.
However, experts warn that the danger of these constant deployments from both sides into the contested area increases the danger of an accident or miscalculation which could lead to conflict.
In the most threatening incident so far, Tokyo last month said that the fire control, or targeting, radar of Chinese warships near the islands “locked on” to a Japanese helicopter and destroyer in two separate incidents in late January.
Beijing denies this, but US military officers have backed up Japan’s account.
“We are in extremely dangerous territory here,” said Ross Babbage, a military analyst in Canberra and a former senior Australian defense official.
“We could have had Japan and China in a serious war,” he said.
Some foreign and Japanese security experts say Japan’s powerful navy and coast guard still holds the upper hand in the disputed waters, but that this could change if Beijing intensifies its patrols.
“I believe China, for the time being, focuses its resources on the South China Sea, which is a higher priority for them now,” said Yoshihiko Yamada, a maritime policy expert and professor at Tokai University.
“However, if they shift more resources to the East China Sea, the [Japanese] coast guard alone would not be able to handle the situation,” Yamada said.
There were signs that tensions remained high last week when Tokyo protested that China had deployed a series of buoys around the islands to collect intelligence about Japanese operations.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the buoys were in Chinese waters and positioned to collect weather information.
Beijing’s paramilitary agencies have been equally forthright since the standoff began with a stream of news and footage of their deployments.
Ships from these agencies including customs, maritime surveillance and fisheries are in the frontline of Beijing’s campaign to assert sovereignty over the disputed islands, which are believed to be rich in oil and gas.
A Chinese fisheries surveillance vessel entered Japan’s territorial waters near the islands for the second day running on Feb. 24, in what was the 31st similar incursion since September last year, the Japan Coast Guard said last week.