Maritime challenges

In April 2010, Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen, then-deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), declared: “We are going from coastal defence to far sea defence. With the expansion of the country’s naval strategy of the country’s economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major seal lane.” This statement symbolized China’s departure from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “Hide brightness, cherish obscurity” in its maritime strategy.

This statement also confirmed China’s strategy to control the First and Second Island Chains, an intention first made public in 1982 by Admiral Liu Huaqing, the former PLAN commander and the mastermind of China’s naval strategy.

In his 2004 book, Liu identified the first island chain would run from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines, and the second from Tokyo to Ogasawara, Marshal Islands, Guam, and Indonesia. Other books, following this, explained that China envisioned to expand its naval capacity to cover the first island chain by 2010, the second chain by 2020, and finally to become a global force by 2050.

An American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Elizabeth Economy, labeled China as “the Game Changer” which seeks to alter the status quo of the Western Pacific region, and warned that China was seeking to challenge the current global norms and institutions. The rapid build-up of Chinese military power, mostly in their naval and air forces, has disrupted and will likely to continue disrupting the regional military balance. China’s involvement in the territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea has the potential to develop into armed clashes. These factors present serious threats to the stability of Western Pacific region and the maritime security including the vital Sea Lane of Communications (SLOCs).

The Senkaku issue

In the East China Sea, Japan has been taking a very patient, but resolute counteracts to confront China’s coercive actions over the issue of the Senkaku Islands. In light of historical facts and based upon international law, the islands are under the valid control of Japan.

In January 1895 during the Sino-Japanese War, the Government of Japan incorporated the islands into Japanese territory through a Cabinet decision, a lawful means under the international legal framework which existed at that time. Before the incorporation, the Japanese government conducted research on the islands, and ascertained that there had been no trace of control or ownership of the islands by any other nation up until that time.

After the islands were incorporated in the Okinawa prefecture, Japanese civilians received permission from the government and settled on the previously uninhabited islands. Settlers ran business such as dried bonito manufacture and feather collecting. At the peak time, there were more than 200 inhabitants on the islands. In short, Japan had history of effective control over the islands; something China never established.

After World War II, the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty placed the Senkaku Islands under the US administration as part of Okinawa, reaffirming the islands’ status as part of Japanese territory. Neither China nor Taiwan contested this status. Under the US administration over the islands, US forces used part of the islands as firing ranges. The Senkaku Islands were treated as part of Japanese territory in Chinese Communist Party publications and on their official maps.

The situation changed in 1968, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East announced after an investigation that there was a large-scale oil deposit (almost as big as that in Iraq) on the continental shelf of the East China Sea. Three years later both China and Taiwan officially claimed sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.

Under international law, the two most important factors over territorial claim are when a nation declared sovereignty and whether it has effectively controlling the territory. Japan made a territorial claim in 1895, while it was not until 1971 that China made such a claim. The Chinese government did not contest over the Senkaku Islands for 75 years. Although China declared that the islands had been Chinese territory since ancient times, there exists no evidence to prove its effective control over them. As described earlier, Japan had many inhabitants before World War II. When the 1972 Okinawa Reversion Agreement was signed, the administrative rights of the Senkaku islands were returned to Japan. Since then, the Government of Japan has been controlling and administering the territory by patrolling and law enforcement.

After the Senkaku Islands were returned to Japan, China repeatedly made unlawful acts against Japan with regard to them. Recently, China has demonstrated extremely strong and coercive actions against Japan. Chinese state-owned vessels roamed the sea near the islands and have repeatedly made intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters in attempt to erode Japan’s effective control over them. In December 2012, China invaded Japan’s territorial air space over the Senkaku Islands by a fixed wing aircraft operated by the Chinese Maritime Surveillance. Further Chinese intrusions by sea and air are likely to continue, sparking concern that an unexpected contingency might happen.

China officials may argue that it was Japan which first changed the status quo in September 2012 by purchasing three of the Senkaku islands. As the Japanese government had repeatedly explained to the Chinese authority that the purchase was a mere paper transfer of the ownership from a Japanese private citizen to the government, there has been absolutely no actual change in the situation after the purchase. To whomever the ownership belongs, the islands were and still are Japan’s territory. It was China which tried to change the status quo back in 1992 by declaring its law of territorial sea, unilaterally claiming the Senkaku as its territory.

Some Chinese experts criticize Japan for being arrogant and not entering negotiations over the islands. In fact, it has been the Chinese side which has avoided the discussion. In the 1972 Japan-China normalization talks, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said “I do not want talk about [Senkaku]. This became an issue because of oil. Without oil, neither Taiwan nor the United States would be interested.” In the 1978 talk over the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty, Vice-Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping put the issue aside by saying “Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on [the Senkaku] question.”

With these statements, the Chinese government claims that there was a bilateral agreement to shelve the issue. But the fact is no Japanese prime minister or foreign minister agreed with these statements. The official position of the Japanese government is that there is no territorial issue over Senkaku. If China wants to challenge Japan’s position, it should do so not by threat or force, but by bringing the issue to the International Court of Justice. According to my source, the Japanese government will be willing to go to court if China files a suit.

Instead, however, China has been conducting military exercises to prepare for a short, sharp war with Japan in the East China Sea. Captain James Fannel, director of intelligence and information operations for the US Pacific Fleet, revealed at a conference in San Diego that they witnessed a massive and cross-military regional exercise. After analyzing the exercises, they concluded that the PLAN was preparing for a war that would destroy Japanese forces and seize the Senkaku islands.

China’s ADIZ

In addition, China abruptly declared in November 2013 the establishment of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. The new Chinese ADIZ covers its self-claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) all the way to the Okinawa Trouph, and significantly overlapping the existing ADIZ of Japan, which includes the Senkaku Islands. It also overlaps with the China’s offshore oil wells over the Japan-China median line as well as the ADIZ of South Korea and Taiwan. This unilateral action to change the status quo was extremely dangerous as it could escalate the situation surrounding the Senkaku islands and undermine regional security.

Any country has the right to set its ADIZ, but they must follow the international norm. ADIZ is the area to identify incoming foreign or hostile aircraft and to intercept them in order to prevent illegal entry into national airspace. But China is now demanding foreign nations to report their flight plans to the Chinese foreign ministry or aviation authority even if the aircrafts are not approaching China’s territorial airspace. Aircrafts in the ADIZ would be required to follow any order given by the Chinese defense ministry, otherwise “defensive emergency measures” could be implemented. China is treating its new ADIZ as if it were their territorial airspace.

China has a record of treating its EEZ as if it were its territorial waters. In March 2009 when an unarmed US ocean surveillance ship, The Impeccable, was conducting a routine survey operation in China’s claimed EEZ, it was aggressively confronted by Chinese warships. In January 2013, a Chinese frigate directed fire-control radar at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer which was navigating on the high seas near the Senkaku Islands. These actions are widely interpreted as a kind of military attack. For example, according to mutual understanding between Japan and Russia, such behavior is considered a military attack and the commanders would avoid taking such action.

As Japan and China does not have an agreed set of code of conducts, the two governments began talks to establish a maritime communication mechanism in April 2013. But no agreement was made, and the talks were discontinued.

China’s unilateral establishment of the ADIZ was dangerous as it could easily lead to unexpected consequences in the airspace without this code of conduct agreement. Japan, for example, has discussed a code of conduct with Korea over Japan’s ADIZs. We have agreed to operate no scrambles over the disputed airspace over Takeshima, and to give a notice of at least 30 minutes before aircrafts approach each other’s ADIZ. In order to avoid unnecessary accidents or incidents, Japan and China need to set a similar code of conduct.

Maritime coalition

With drastically changing international environments, the Japanese government under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the first National Security Strategy in December 2013. In order to strengthen security cooperation for international peace and stability, Japan identified South Korea, Australia, ASEAN, and India as partners that share universal values and strategic interests, in addition to the United States. Although South Korea is a very important partner to address North Korean nuclear and missile issues, it may not be too helpful for Japan’s maritime security in the East China Sea because of the territorial dispute between the two countries over Takeshima. In addition, the political condition under President Park Geun-hye has complicated the bilateral relationship.

 The countries of ASEAN are located in the critical areas of the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) of Japan. The Malacca-Singapore Strait is in fact the gate to the lifeline for the Southeast and Northeast Asian countries, including Japan. Approximately 50,000 ships per year, more than a quarter of world’s maritime cargo shipment, and about one half of the entire trade volume of Japan navigate through this Strait. Nearly 85 percent of oil tankers from the Middle East to Northeast Asia also pass through the Strait as well. This makes the Strait an “Achilles’ tendon” in the world economy.

Japan is eager to support ASEAN’s efforts to settle dispute in the South China Sea not by force, but in a lawful manner. It is in Japan’s own benefit to deepen cooperation with the ASEAN countries. Prime Minister Abe picked Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia as his foreign trip destination in January 2013, visited Myanmar in May, and Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines in July, and held the ASEAN-Japan Summit Meeting in Tokyo in December. These events show how much emphasis the prime minister puts on strengthening relations with ASEAN nations.

For Australia, Abe enthusiastically developed cooperative relations in his first term as prime minister. In 2007, Prime Ministers Abe and John Howard announced the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, which aimed to strengthen the bilateral cooperation on a wide spectrum of security areas, including maritime and aviation security. In August 2012, Australian defence minister Stephen Smith declared a “Historical Shift” of Australian strategies. In order to further enhance its engagements in the Asia Pacific region, Australia has been conducting the Force Posture Review. In February 2014, three Chinese warships conducted an unprecedented and unannounced exercise in international waters to the north of Australia. This move was a show of China’s military might and will have a significant impact on security and strategic policy setting for Australia.

India is another country that Prime Minister Abe has put a significant amount of diplomatic effort. In the late November to early December 2013, Japan’s Emperor and Empress visited India for six days. In January 2014, during his visit to India, Abe with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the bilateral Strategic and Global Partnership. Based on the agreement, Japan and India are to strengthen cooperation in a broad range of areas, including maritime security.

With the cooperation of these countries, Japan’s military expert, Admiral Hideaki Kaneda, envisions a web of maritime security cooperation. The trilateral semi-alliance among Japan, US and Australia would take an important role to secure vast SLOCs through the “North-South Expanded Asia” covering Northeast and Southeast Asia as well as the Western Pacific to Oceania. Another trilateral cooperation among Japan, US and India would cover the “East-West Expanded Asia,” including the area from the South of Suez Canal to Southeast and Northeast Asia. Japan can cooperate with ASEAN countries and the United States to cover maritime security over the South China Sea and the Malacca-Singapore Strait.

Four scenarios

In the Asia-Pacific region, four different scenarios can be drawn depending on the relative strength of Japan, China and the United States. These scenarios can be represented as four quadrants divided by two axes. The horizontal axis represents the power balance between the United States and China with a stronger U.S. on the right and a stronger China on the left. The vertical axis represents the relative strength of Japan with a stronger Japan on the top, and a weaker Japan on the bottom. (see pic)

With a weaker Japan and a stronger China (bottom-left), the Asia Pacific may become a Sino-centric region with Chinese hegemony, less US involvement, and an empty US-Japan alliance. As a result, most nations in the region would go on the bandwagon to become close to China. With the combination of a weaker Japan and a stronger US (bottom-right), implying the US-centered regional order, the region may have a high degree of instability and much friction with the US-centered regional order and a weak US-Japan alliance. While the United States would seek stability with China, there would be much friction between China and other Asian nations.

Japan seeks to avoid these two scenarios. With the combination of a stronger Japan and a stronger China (top-left), the region would be a stage of confrontation between the US-Japan alliance and China with a strong influence of China and a weaker presence of the United States. This would introduce a new cold war framework, dividing the region into two camps. With both a strong Japan and a strong US (top-right), the two countries would be able to lead to establish a new multi-lateral regional order which covers political, economic and military aspects. It is Japan’s hope to serve as an important actor under this order, which China would accept though reluctantly.

Many international estimates predict that China will surpass the United States in the size of GDP sometime in the late 2020s. Similarly thirty years ago, many predicted that Japan would become an economic power comparable to the United States. But it did not happen. Many Japanese experts on China are skeptical about China’s future with so many domestic problems.

Even The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s most pro-China national newspaper (December 4, 2013), compared China to an elephant on a bicycle. As the fast growing nation has domestic problems, such as a widening income gap, pollution and corruption, it “is inciting nationalism at home by creating enemies outside the country and providing its people with the fruit of economic growth. Unless it keeps on pedaling, the bicycle called single-party dictatorship will fall.” People all over the world are watching how far the bicycle can go.

(The author is Professor and Director of the Research Institute, International University of Japan)