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.
News bulletins in China are saturated with coverage of Chinese paramilitary ships jostling for position with their Japanese counterparts around the rocky islands.
PRESSURE ON JAPAN COAST GUARD
There is evidence that Japan’s coast guard is feeling the pressure. It plans to form a new, 600-member unit equipped with 12 patrol ships that will be deployed exclusively on missions around the disputed islands.
It is also boosting its budget for ship and aircraft purchase by 23 percent to ￥32.5 billion (US$348.15 million) for the year starting next month, as well as adding 119 personnel to the Japan Coast Guard force. That would be the biggest staff increase in 32 years.
As tensions mounted around the islands ahead of Shinzo Abe return to office as prime minister in December last year, he proposed converting retired navy vessels into coast guard patrol ships.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on Tuesday that his ministry and the coast guard were discussing the idea.
Beijing has so far held its navy back from waters immediately surrounding the disputed territory, but its warships are almost constantly patrolling nearby seas and other waterways around the Japanese-administered archipelago, according to PLA announcements.
In late January, the PLA said a naval fleet would conduct a naval exercise in the Western Pacific after “sailing through islands” off the Chinese coast, a clear reference to the Diaoyutais. The navy had conducted seven similar exercises last year, it said.
In a series of subsequent bulletins, the PLA said three of its most modern warships, the missile destroyer Qingdao and the missile frigates Yantai and Yancheng would make up the fleet which would conduct training in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea in an 18-day deployment.
The US Navy has also monitored the sharply increased tempo of Chinese naval and paramilitary operations near Japan.
In an unusually blunt public assessment, a senior US naval intelligence officer Captain James Fanell said at a seminar in San Diego, California, on Jan. 31, that the PLA Navy had sent seven surface action groups into the Philippines Sea south of Japan last year. It had also deployed the biggest number of submarines in its history into this area, he added.
It was unclear if Fanell was referring to the same seven deployments the PLA disclosed last month.
“Make no mistake, the PLA Navy is focused on war at sea and about sinking an opposing fleet,” Fanell said.
The US officer also said that China Marine Surveillance, a civil proxy for the PLA, had become “a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization” with the goal of enforcing territorial claims.
The frequency of deployments appears set to continue with the PLA announcing on Feb. 27 it would conduct 40 military exercises this year with an increased emphasis on “core security-related interests.”
Senior Chinese officials have strongly implied that Japan’s claim over the Diaoyutais is an attack on one of China’s core interests, an important distinction to Beijing in defining its non-negotiable national priorities.
In a speech to the politburo in late January, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) referred to the pain of “wartime atrocities,” an apparent reference to Japan’s bloody invasion and occupation of China last century, according to a report of his remarks carried by Xinhua news agency.
“We will stick to the road of peaceful development, but will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests,” he was reported to have said.
Beijing continues to boost its military firepower. Chinese shipyards last week delivered a new, stealth frigate to the navy, the official PLA Daily newspaper wrote.
The radar evading type-056 frigate would be introduced in large numbers as the first step in a systematic upgrade of navy hardware, the paper said.
JAPAN WILL NOT BUCKLE
Despite the intense military and diplomatic pressure, the Japanese government shows no sign of wilting.
“We simply cannot tolerate any challenge now and in the future,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said recently in Washington.
“No nation should make any miscalculation or underestimate the firmness of our resolve,” he added.
Still, military analysts said Japanese forces must continue to match China’s patrols and exercises.
In a paper prepared for an Australian military think tank last year, an influential Japanese military strategist, retired vice admiral Yoji Koda, said Chinese naval forces sailing around the Japanese islands “will surely meet intensive surveillance and continuous tracking” from Japan and its US allies.
Some military analysts suggest Beijing’s continuous deployments around the Diaoyutais are also part of a wider policy of enhancing its claims over a number of disputed territories in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“If Beijing starts policing territory it claims as its own, and if rival claimants can’t push back effectively, it will start looking like the rightful sovereign over that territory,” Holmes said.
However, Holmes added that Japan poses a much stiffer challenge for Beijing than smaller nations like the Philippines which also has overlapping territorial claims with China.
While smaller in raw numbers than the PLA navy, the highly trained Japanese Navy is generally regarded as the most powerful in Asia with state-of-the art ships, submarines and aircraft. It also has a security alliance with the US that obliges Washington to intervene if Japan is attacked.
Other military experts suggest Beijing has decided to intensify its operations against Japan, a nation whose wartime aggression is remembered across Asia, because confrontations with smaller neighbors in recent years had led to a region-wide diplomatic backlash.
“The Senkaku, Diaoyu hoopla of late is triggered by China’s desire to extricate itself from total regional isolation caused by China’s expansive territorial claims against virtually all of its maritime neighbors,” said Yu Maochun, an expert on the PLA at the Annapolis, Maryland, US Naval Academy.
Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo