Beijing’s Test of Tokyo

Tokyo - JapanEarly this morning, East China Sea time, China sent a small reconnaissance plane into Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands. Too small to register on Japan’s air defense radar, but large enough to make a point, this propeller jet assigned to the Chinese Marine Surveillance Agency was perfectly timed to take an advantage of the distraction of the North Korea’s missile launch. China and Japan have been drawing lines in the waters around the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands for the Chinese) almost daily since Japanese government under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda purchased these islands from a private owner on the September 11. China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, has consistently argued that Japan escalated the bilateral dispute over these small uninhabited islands by “nationalizing” them. China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi took his case to the United Nations, where he derided the Japanese government for challenging post-WWII settlement in Asia. (source: Sheila A. Smith – CFR – 13/12/2012)

Beyond this rhetorical onslaught, however, seems to be a more calculated tactical test of Tokyo by Beijing. Since Noda’s decision, China’s Marine Surveillance Agency ships as well as Fisheries Agency patrols have made visits to the Senkaku Islands in daily occurrence. Soon after the Japanese announcement of purchase, some of these vessels traversed territorial waters in a show of bravado. Since then, these ships have more often than not passed through contiguous waters, a demonstration of China’s ability to deploy in waters around the islands but not as direct an assertion of Chinese intent as entry into Japan’s twelve nautical mile territorial waters. Nonetheless, today Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura noted that in the past three days Chinese vessels have again focused their attention on Japan’s territorial waters. Japan Coast Guard has met these intrusions with a steady patrol of vessels. Both Chinese and Japanese vessels have conveyed their right to be in these waters.

For the most part, this maritime standoff has been well-managed, with Chinese and Japanese crews carefully avoiding any behavior that might cause a miscalculation by the other side. Japan, however, has little interest in sustained tensions in East China Sea. Today, Japan Coast Guard commandant Takashi Kitamura, in a statement at Foreign Correspondents’ Club, implied Japan would be willing to decrease its patrols if China did the same. But the import of the enhanced Chinese maritime presence in the Senkaku waters seems clear. By asserting its ability to deploy and maintain a steady presence around these islands, Beijing is testing what has to date been a monopoly on policing of these waters by Japan’s Coast Guard. Diplomatic protests by Japan notwithstanding China has slowly and steadily demonstrated that it can, and it will, assert its right to operate in the waters and now in the air over disputed islands. This morning’s flight introduced a new dimension to China’s test of Japan’s response. Coming in under the radar, at an altitude of 300 meters, Chinese aircraft (Harbin Y-12) was discovered only by a sighting from a Japan Coast Guard vessel. Moreover, it flew directly over the Senkaku Islands without interference, causing considerable concern in Japanese media about Japan’s defenses. Interesting also is the timing of the flight. The region was focused on the surprising launch of a North Korean missile when this low flying reconnaissance flight went undetected by Japan’s radar. This implies that China is willing to use the opportunity afforded by other crises to test Japan, and to reveal vulnerabilities Japan has not had to redress before. In small but consistent ways, China is pushing Japan to improve its defenses, to take steps to actively defend its southwestern islands.

Japan ought to do this. But Japanese leaders must also be alert to the possibility of a broader aim. Beijing is playing dangerous game, one increasingly appears to be aimed at isolating Tokyo. Support for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Sunday’s Lower House election is likely to grow in response to Chinese pressure on Japan’s defenses, and herein may lay the Beijing’s real purpose. Perhaps what Beijing is hoping to accomplish is to demonstrate that Japan’s postwar policy of limited self-defense has created vulnerabilities for Japan, vulnerabilities that a more hawkish LDP might consider rectifying. Revising the constitution, renaming Japan’s Self-Defense Force, asserting a more militarized national identity, these are all part of what Beijing could then point to as evidence that “Japanese militarism” is again on the rise. This small flight over the Senkakus may seem innocuous, but it signals a creeping effort to change administrative control over the islands. Within Japan, it creates deeper challenges for those who come into power this coming Sunday. Japan must be shrewd and calm; defend its territory and assert its desire for reconciliation. It must enhance its air and maritime defenses in the southwestern region, but it must also carefully consider the danger of relying on political symbols and assertions that feed into the vision of a “right-wing” nationalistic Japan that Beijing would be only too happy to exploit. Baiting Japan’s politicians into more reactive stance on the eve of an election … Welcome to the new Japan-China relationship.


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8 Responses to Beijing’s Test of Tokyo

  1. (…..) Japan’s ongoing domestic political instability continues to undermine its political clout in its bilateral relationships. The merry-go-round of prime ministers and cabinet ministers is maddening. It is hard for the president of the United States to have a constructive relationship with the prime minister of Japan if they can’t get past the first date because there never is a second date. On the global stage, Japan remains rather passive compared to other nations. It often prefers a behind-the-scenes role rather than a leadership role. It just does not seem willing to take the risks that political leadership naturally entails. So I conclude the following. Japan’s overall clout derives heavily from its economic clout. Because its economy has been stalled for two decades, it is not surprising that its clout has not increased, and as a result its clout has fallen relative to other nations. Likewise, compared to other nations in the postwar era, Japan has not been seen as having particularly strong military or political clout. Japan’s military and political clout certainly hasn’t increased to a level to counteract its diminished economic clout. So overall, relative to other countries, Japan’s clout is down from two decades ago.

    So what can Japan do to increase its clout? I encourage Japan to do the following.

    First, Japan should capitalize more on its well-educated female work force to boost its economic clout. Japan’s population is shrinking and this means its economic clout will likely continue to fall. Japan often boasts that it is a country bereft of natural resources and that its people are its true natural resource. But Japan still maintains its strong preference for a rigid, male-dominated workplace that often pushes women to the sidelines. Second, Japan should continue to move toward relaxing constitutional restrictions that hamstring it from projecting offensive military power. It is unlikely that Japan will ever be seen as having significant military clout if it cannot use it offensively. Third, Japan should move aggressively toward joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Japan’s active, positive participation in this ambitious trade agreement would not only boost its economic clout but also its political clout. It would demonstrate Japan’s political will to further integrate itself into the world economy. I think it is fair to say Japan’s clout is down. But the world would benefit from a Japan with more clout.

  2. (…..) In China, Mr. Xi was appointed as head of a powerful interagency group formed in September at the top of the Chinese government to oversee the country’s maritime disputes. That was two months before he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party and before he became the civilian head of the military at the 18th Party Congress. That means that for three months now, Mr. Xi has had a critical say in how China conducts its strategy with Japan, Western and Chinese analysts say. At the same time, China has put greater focus on its growing maritime capacities. The outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, said in a farewell address that China aimed to become a maritime power. A highlight of Mr. Xi’s just-finished tour of southern China was a visit to one of China’s most advanced destroyers, the Haikou, which often patrols the South China Sea, another disputed area off China’s shores.

    The dispute with Japan carries great resonance with the Chinese public. The older generation recalls the history of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war when Japan humiliated China at sea and annexed the islands. Many people also remember the brutal World War II Japanese occupation of China. The younger generation bristles with the themes of a revised 1990s nationalistic school curriculum even as they buy Japanese cars, electronics and fashion.

    The economic fallout from the dispute has hurt Japan, but may not leave China unscathed, either. Japanese economists say that Japanese auto sales in China, where top-tier Japanese brands were something of a status symbol, slumped precipitously in September and October. There has been a slight recovery since those lows, they said. Some Japanese manufacturers in China, including Toyota and Sony, suspended production after anti-Japanese protests related to the islands, and laid off Chinese employees who demanded higher wages when they returned. Some Chinese economists have warned the government that large-scale boycotts of Japanese goods could lead to huge job losses in a softening Chinese economy. With little prospect of a return to more normal relations anytime soon, some Japanese factories in China are beginning to seek alternative locations in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar, where wages are lower and employees are less demanding, according to Japanese surveys. As the dispute drags on, China’s words and actions in international forums have escalated, too. The foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, wrote in an article in The People’s Daily last week that China would “resolutely fight against the Japanese side” over what he called the illegal purchase of the islands. On Friday, China submitted documents to the United Nations detailing its claims to the continental shelf in the East China Sea, another step toward establishing what it says are its legal rights. In mid-September, as the islands dispute intensified, a vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng, foreshadowed China’s unfolding game plan. Referring to the claims that would be handed to the United Nations, he said: “All these are proclamations of China’s sovereignty.” China, he said, “will take tit-for-tat measures to protect our territory as the situation develops.”

  3. As naval patrol vessels of China, Japan, South Korea and other Southeast Asian nations shadow one another and tension mounts, it’s time to consider peaceful alternatives. At stake are marine resources and possible large reserves of oil and gas underneath the waters, rocks and shoals claimed by East Asian countries. If a solution can be worked out for sharing the proceeds among concerned parties: Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, China and the Philippines while tactfully avoiding the contentious sovereignty issues, confrontation can be avoided. In the oil industry, border disputes between countries are resolved with joint development areas, or the oil and gas mechanism of “unitization.” Essentially, unitization lets each nation access undersea resources that cross borders, but leaves national boundaries, or overlapping claims to boundaries, intact. There’s much at stake regarding recent territorial disputes with the Diaoyu/Senkakku Islands between China and Japan and the Spratly/Paracel Islands in the South China Sea overlapping borders with China and ASEAN members. Since 1947 and the revolution, China has linked maritime territorial claims with national sovereignty, pointing to historical maps showing a “9 dotted line” stretching throughout the South China Sea. Through collaboration and unitization, China versus Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and others could develop the resources. But no incumbent government would lose credibility with its citizens over sovereignty rights. Oil reservoirs that cross national frontiers need special agreements. In petroleum states where cross-border reservoirs have been discovered, for example fields straddling Norway and the UK in the North Sea, the governments agreed on a common framework to develop these resources. With unitization, owners of operating and nonoperating interests pool property interests in a producing area, normally a field, to form one cohesive operating unit. In return, claimants receive a pre-negotiated percentage of interest. Unitization is usually undertaken to achieve the most efficient and economical exploitation of reserves to benefit all parties (…..)

    The implications of successful unitization agreements with China are huge. Namely, conflict could be avoided. State actors with economic interests would have immediate access to resources. It may also set a precedent for future regions of the world in regards to resource extraction such as the Arctic Sea, Greenland, or the Antarctic, where China seeks to broaden its footprint as an emerging superpower.

  4. (…..) “…Abe has called for an increase in Japan’s defense spending, easing constitutional restrictions on the military and even changing Japan’s so-called Self Defense Forces into a full-fledged military. Abe is likely to push through several changes with little opposition, including abolishing the requirement for a separate new law each time Japan wants to send peacekeepers abroad and establishing a National Security Council to streamline decision-making, which was a primary, though eventually unrealized, goal of Abe’s previous administration.”

    The editorial also rightly notes that “for the first time in decades, national defense played a significant role in Japan’s general election,” yet refrains from listing the reasons for this, namely North Korea’s renewed belligerence and the on-going crisis over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands between China and Japan. But Xinhua gets the big picture right, namely that Abe is likely to make Japan a more “normal” nation, to use a once-popular phrase. This means a more rational national security decision making process and a military that can be more easily dispatched abroad for collective self-defense (instead of the current cumbersome situation in which each overseas deployment requires a special law to be passed). He indeed may also attempt to increase the defense budget, which has been trending downward for nearly a decade. Clearly, Beijing would not be amused by a stronger, less-constrained, more confident Japan. But much of the rest of Asia wouldn’t mind. There might be grumbling over Japan’s failure to fully account for its wartime atrocities (and Abe has been on the wrong side of this in the past), but most smaller nations are eager for Tokyo to become a counterweight to China. They may make this case quietly (or in the case of the Philippines, not so quietly), but a stronger Japan that remained closely wedded to the United States would likely be welcomed by states that have territorial disputes with China or worry about the growing presence of the PLA Navy in the region’s common waters (…..)

  5. A joke now making the rounds in Asia asks, “who is America’s most effective diplomat in Asia?” The punch line brings knowing laughter: “‘Mr. Beijing.’ Yes, Mr. Bob Beijing is playing America’s best hand”.

    The joke’s sting lies in the law of unintended consequences. Beijing’s increasingly provocative moves include cutting a Vietnamese seismic-exploration ship’s cables, disrupting oil exploration, declaring the entire South China Sea under Chinese sovereignty and making some hitherto unpublicized but very sensitive challenges to Malaysia. All seem tailor-made to produce exactly what China says it doesn’twant: a de facto anti-China coalition backed discreetly by the United States and reaching from India to the Sea of Japan. As if to put an exclamation point on it, the Philippine foreign minister recently said that if Japan rearmed and abandoned its pacifist constitution, Manila “would welcome that very much.” What is going on? Does persistent, assertive Chinese behavior amount to self-containment or even isolation? One is tempted to think so (…..) Despite the bravado, deliberately vague dotted lines and other moves seeking payback for a few bad centuries, China has no choice but to come to terms with neighbors hoping the United States will remain a Pacific power for an indefinite time to come. Despite Beijing’s protests, it’s the other Asian powers that want America there—not as hegemon, but as balancer. Having lost its quasi-monopolist grip on Burma, China now has only two close friends in all of Asia: shaky Pakistan and pariah North Korea. If the recent and rather crude nationalist bluster serves as tonic for domestic weakness, Beijing is buying itself real trouble. A better path still lies open: China can reach an understanding with the United States about each country’s respective Asian footprint and then join in stewardship of a rules-based maritime system. But Beijing’s recent moves instead entrench a stupid and self-marginalizing policy, deepening Sino-American mutual suspicions and making that mutually beneficial destination harder to reach.

  6. (…..) The American line, in fact, is that rather than shut China in, the United States is trying to pull it out. Washington wants China to act like a full member of the international community in responsible ways, enjoying the benefits of global trade and political systems while also sharing the costs of maintaining them—in brief, paying to play. To date, the Chinese approach has been rather selective, pocketing gains when possible but avoiding the burdens of such problems as Iran, North Korea and climate change (…..)

  7. (…..) One new factor that may be raising the stakes is continued improvements in deep-sea drilling technology. Until the 1990s there was little drilling for offshore oil or gas deposits deeper than 304 meters. Over the past two decades, increasing amounts of oil worldwide have come from what is known as “ultra-deepwater” – depths of 1500 meters or more. Until recently, the technology was limited to mainly major Western energy multinational firms. Then last May the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company, CNOOC, announced it had developed a deep-sea oil platform at a cost of roughly $1 billion capable of extracting oil at a depth of 12,000 meters. To date, there has been no authoritative survey of oil and gas potential in either the East or South China Seas. Chinese estimates of oil and gas reserves in both disputed areas appear exaggerated compared with those of major multinational energy firms and other analysts. China estimates East China Sea reserves at 160 billion barrels of oil, nearly double that of US Energy Information Agency estimates. As for South China Sea reserves – likely 70 percent gas, according to most experts – Chinese claims of oil appear wildly inflated. CNOOC estimates some 213 billion barrels of oil – almost the size of Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves. This is nearly 12 times larger than that estimated by the US Geological Service, and energy consultancy Wood-Mackenzie estimates a total of 2.5 billion barrels equivalent of proven oil and gas in the disputed South China Sea islets and shoals –nearly 100 times less than China claims! With the possible exception of China and Chinese firms that have entered in joint ventures with foreign firms, East Asian states seeking to exploit the resources of claimed islets and atolls would need to partner with foreign investors. Indeed, several ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea have signed oil-exploration contracts with foreign firms. However, the political risk and legal uncertainty of the disputed territories make it problematic for large-scale investment. This logic may have been behind the policy China pursued until recently, as suggested by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who proposed “put aside differences and jointly develop resources.” Given the opaque Chinese decision-making process, it’s tempting to speculate whether the combination of maritime military ambitions, mercantilist resources policies, inflated hopes of energy and new oil technology capabilities may account for the apparent abandoning of Deng’s policies.

    Ironically, Deng may have had it right. It is difficult to see how to resolve the disputes: How do countries compromise on national honor and historic national memory? And it is equally difficult to imagine how to create legal and political certainty to reduce risk enough for global energy companies to commit what would be multibillion dollar investments. Most exploration contracts entered into by energy firms have been by small companies looking to get in on the ground floor. So joint development “without prejudice“ on claims would seem to make a lot of sense (…..)

  8. Even as tensions between Beijing and Tokyo grow by the day, there are good reasons to believe outright conflict can be avoided (…..) In the end, Abe and Xi are balancing the same equation: They will not give ground on sovereignty issues, but they have no interest in a war – in fact, they must dread it. Even if a small skirmish between Chinese and Japanese ships or aircraft occurs, the leaders will not order additional forces to join the battle unless they are boxed in by a very specific set of circumstances that makes escalation the only face-saving option. The escalatory spiral into all-out war that some envisage once the first shot is fired is certainly not the likeliest outcome, as recurrent skirmishes elsewhere – such as in Kashmir, or along the Thai-Cambodian border –have demonstrated.


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