WALTER HAMILTON. Stand off in the East China Sea

Aug 26, 2016


About eighteen months ago, while talking with a policy analyst at Japan’s Defense Ministry in Tokyo, I asked how the confrontation with China over the disputed Senkaku (or Daioyu) Islands in the East China Sea was affecting morale in the Self-Defense Forces.

‘I recently visited Sasebo,’ he replied, referring to the southern base of the SDF units designated to repel any Chinese attempt to occupy the islands. ‘The expression on the faces of the men was very different from what I’m used to seeing at Ichigaya,’ the district of Tokyo where the Defense Ministry is located. In the Ichigaya compound, a certain non-military air prevails; you’ll notice chirpy tour groups being shown around twice a day and snapping up souvenirs at the commissary. (I cannot imagine this at Russell Hill in Canberra!)

What he saw in the faces of the troops at Sasebo was the tense and fixed expressions of soldiers and sailors who realize their next deployment might not be an exercise, but the real thing. 

The waters around the Senkaku Islands have been the focus of attention, in case of a possible military clash, since 2012. Though both sides have pushed to the brink at times, the worst-case scenario has been avoided: China and Japan have sophisticated political and military lines of command and control, which so far have prevented a shooting war. (None of the islands, consisting mostly of barren rocks, is currently occupied.)

Instead, we have a new Cold War in the East China Sea, one that shows little sign of thawing out.

In recent days, more than 200 Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by coast guard and other surveillance vessels––some armed with canon––have swarmed around the disputed islands, breaching what Japan considers its territorial and/or contiguous waters. This unusually large incursion has been intended to give the lie, as it were, to Japan’s contention that it controls the islands. Japanese coast guard vessels patrolling the area have called on the Chinese to withdraw, but to little effect.

The ‘swarming’ manoeuvre has prompted a barrage of diplomatic protests from Tokyo. In one day alone, ten official protests were lodged with the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo. When the Japanese Foreign Minister summoned the Chinese Ambassador to his office, and gave him a stern dressing down before a throng of cameramen, it was the diplomatic equivalent of the fishing boat ‘swarm’.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that China warned Japan last June not to get involved in any Freedom of Navigation demonstration in the South China Sea, where China has turned several disputed coral atolls into air strips and built fortified hangers typically required for military aircraft. Similar warnings have been issued to Australia, the other major U.S. ally in the region.

Around the same time, a senior official of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party reportedly told his Chinese interlocutor in Beijing that Japan could exercise its newly proclaimed right of ‘collective self-defense’ to send naval vessels in support of the United States should a conflict arise in the South China Sea. The sabre rattling on all sides is becoming deafening.

Added to this is the continued program of ballistic missile tests by North Korea, using mobile ground launchers and submarines. In the latest test this week, the missile flew about 500 kilometres to the Sea of Japan, reportedly landing inside Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. The launch was partly in protest against a major U.S.-South Korean military training exercise now underway.

The perceived threat from a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea has Japan rushing to strengthen its missile-defense shield, adding new shipboard Aegis capabilities alongside its land-based Patriot missile deployments and also considering (along with South Korea) purchase of the American high-altitude THAAD interception system.

Japan’s new Defense Minister, the hawkish Tomomi Inada, just back from observing Self-Defense Force personnel on anti-piracy duties at the Horn of Africa, boarded an aircraft carrier on Tuesday as part of a tour of inspection of the major U.S. naval base at Yokosuka near Tokyo. ‘Readiness’ and ‘deterrence’ are the watchwords on the lips of Japanese leaders these days, just as ‘refusal to negotiate’ over territorial sovereignty is the catch-cry of China’s leadership and ‘right to survive’ is the justification employed by North Korea’s regime for its belligerency.

One ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak prospect is the meeting this week––only finalized at the last minute––of the Foreign Ministers of Japan, China and South Korea, the first such get-together in Tokyo since 2011. An immediate topic of conversation was North Korea’s missile firing, which Japan’s Fumio Kishida said ‘cannot be tolerated’.

Whether the ministers will be able to agree on concrete steps to diffuse regional tensions, however, is doubtful. Japan will provide details of a ¥1 billion health and welfare fund intended to settle the ‘comfort women’ dispute with South Korea. And China’s Foreign Minister will likely argue that trade and economic links are too important to sacrifice to territorial disputes. But no breakthroughs are expected.

Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ talks resumed last year after a three-year hiatus. One of the aims is to arrange a leaders’ summit at some future date. Until then, however, we can expect little change in the grim expressions observed on the faces of the Japanese military stationed at-the-ready in Sasebo.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years.







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