Allies step up to counter China

Robert E. McCoy  | February 15, 2018

Conditions are ripe for a potentially dangerous military encounter between Allies and China in East Asia.

As China is increasingly assertive in sending its ships and planes into waters and airspaces outside its territorial domain, Tokyo has responded by upping the number of sorties its Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) fighters have flown to interdict Beijing’s incursions.

Recent penetrations of Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by Chinese fighters, bombers, and surveillance aircraft in and around the Tsushima Straight between Korea and Japan have caused concern (http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201801300046.html). While much of that airspace is seen as international, a universally-accepted protocol is that a country announces its intentions before entering the ADIZ of another. It is a professional courtesy as well as a safety precaution so that the entering aircraft are not mistaken as hostile. 

Earlier this year, it was disturbing to learn that a Chinese submarine had been operating in the waters around the disputed islets in the East China Sea – Diaoyus to China, Senkakus to Japan (https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/Submarine-detection-a-rude-awakening-for-Sino-Japan-relations ). Although administered by Japan, China claims them and the disagreement is a source of tension between the two countries.

When Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyers entered the area to shadow the Chinese nuclear sub, a Chinese military surface vessel closed on the two Japanese ships before it and the sub departed the area. Interestingly, the Chinese submarine had been detected by a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force P-3C patrol aircraft. 

Such incidents between China and Japan are only the most recent of several that have occurred in the past few years. Equally important is the number of Chinese aircraft that have flown near the disputed islets. In 2016 alone, JASDF fighters were scrambled 851 times – a record number – out of Okinawa in response to Chinese aircraft flying in close proximity to the contested rocks (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/04/14/national/japans-fighter-jet-scrambles-set-new-record-2016-amid-surging-chinese-military-activity/#.WnzezWaZO6A ).

All of this is in addition to China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea where five other countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – have counter claims. Despite a 2016 decision by The Hague that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) applies regarding this matter, China refuses to honor the verdict that invalidated its claim (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html ).

Potential for trouble

To be sure, China has just as much right to navigate the open seas and international airspace as any other nation. However, the manner in which it conducts its operations near the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas and its flights between Korea and Japan are clearly intended to provocatively exercise that prerogative.

The United States has occasionally exercised Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, often sailing well within waters claimed by China. However, these UNCLOS ventures are too infrequent and are usually explained in terms that do not signal any strong challenge China’s claim. The FONOPs have been too timid to make any significant statement.

Now we learn that four countries – “the Quad” of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. – are joining forces to combat China over its fatuous claims (https://www.voanews.com/a/countries-push-for-joint-naval-exercises-in-south-china-sea/4239171.html ). While the U.S. is likely to take the lead on this, how things will play out is presently unknown. However, it is noteworthy that Japan is one of the four countries involved in this resistance effort.

The stakes in the face-off between the two sides have been upped a notch or two by news that that China has sent advanced fighter aircraft to a newly constructed base on a man-made islet in the Spratly Island chain of the South China Sea (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/02/08/asia-pacific/apparent-first-chinese-air-force-deploys-advanced-fighter-jets-south-china-sea/#.Wnzi7maZO6A ).

How the Quad reacts will be telling. Any feeble response – or none at all – will be seen as a green light for China to continue its pretentious claims. A proper response, one that clearly informs Beijing its neighbors will no longer tolerate its boorish behavior, could precipitate a military skirmish. 

While outright conflict is unlikely, lives could be at risk as one nation decides in the heat of the moment that words and passive responses to a particular provocation would not be enough. Examples of provocations that could provoke a significant military response include the intentional ramming of a Japanese coast guard vessel in 2010 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv031K_lV4I ) and the deliberate sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in 2014  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mkiTkMVemM ).

The unanswered question is whether China or the Allies are prepared for any serious confrontation regarding Beijing’s claims of Diaoyus/Senkakus and most of the South China Sea. For now, China is better at asserting its perceived rights to fly or sail – or make a claim – wherever it wants than the Quad is at countering them.

Image: China’s Type 815A Dongdiao-class Electronic Reconnaissance Ship (auxiliary general intelligence) sails in uninvited in the vicinity of U.S.-Australian naval Exercise Talisman Sabre in international waters off the coast of Queensland, Australia, in July 2017.

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