(Sankei: February 18, 2015 – p. 7)
By Masashi Nishihara, President of Research Institute for Peace and Security
At the last Japan-China summit held in November 2014 in Beijing, the two nations agreed to start operating a “maritime communications mechanism” to prevent accidental clashes. In consultations between the two countries following the agreement, they also agreed to expand the mechanism to include airspace.
If the “maritime and air communications mechanism” actually becomes functional, it will be an effective step to help ease the tension between the two countries. I believe the communication mechanism should be implemented as soon as possible.
Suspicion about China’s efforts to capture the Senkakus
However, what matters most is how seriously China will take such confidence building measures. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao originally began discussing on the maritime communications mechanism in 2007, but the talks were suspended on account of the Japanese government’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands.
After that came a Chinese helicopter’s near collision with a warship of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) and a Chinese warship’s use of fire-control radar on a MSDF destroyer, which fueled Japan’s distrust toward China.
China’s maritime and airspace activities for the past year alone are evidence of its provocative nature. In November 2013, Beijing unilaterally set up an “air defense identification zone” over the East China Sea, including the airspace over the Senkaku Islands. China is obviously aiming to make its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands a fait accompli.
Furthermore, China set up the “East China Sea Joint Operational Command Center” in mid-2014. This entity will apparently develop joint operations between maritime and air units in the future.
China has already installed several advanced radars on hills on the Nanlu Islands, Zejiang Province, about 300 kilometers northwest of the Senkaku Islands, as well as reportedly constructing a heliport. The Japan Times dated Dec. 22, 2014, published a photograph of a runway on the Nanlu Islands showing that it has apparently already been paved.
If the runway is actually functional, it will be possible for Chinese fighters to reach the Senkaku Islands faster than Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) fighters that take off from the Naha base, 400 kilometers from the Senkaku Islands. This means that it might not be possible to scramble ASDF fighters to respond to incoming Chinese fighters. It is obvious that China is trying to win control over the airspace and waters around the Senkaku Islands.
This makes me suspect that while China is trying to make Japan let down its guard by setting up the bilateral maritime and air space communication mechanism, it is actually proceeding with operations to capture the Senkaku Islands in one fell swoop. My suspicion is based on analogous reasoning from examining China’s strategy in the South China Sea.
China violated its agreement with ASEAN
In order to avoid conflicts with China in the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted in 2002 the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). This was a declaration that the parties concerned would restrain from resorting to arms to advance unilateral claims. However, China has gradually expanded its territory. This is evidenced by the fact that China set up the Sansha City People’s Government on the Yongxing Island of the Paracel Islands in 2012 and completed a 3,000-meter-long military runway two years later.
To counter China’s moves, ASEAN has tried to give binding power to the declaration by making it the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). But since China insisted on holding bilateral consultations, the COC has not yet been realized.
In the meantime, China brought a large oil drilling rig into an area over which Vietnam claims sovereignty and unilaterally began surveying an undersea oil field. This ended up causing a serious conflict with Vietnam. In an ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting held at the end of August 2013, the participants agreed to implement the COC. However, China continued with construction work to expand the 2,700-meter-long runway on Yongxing Island and completed it last October.
These events show that ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have been betrayed by China. While saying it would attach importance to dialogue with ASEAN, China was actually moving forward with its territorial expansion.
China using communication mechanism as “tactic”
China has reportedly expanded the area of the aforementioned Yongxing Island by 40% through reclamation over the last 16 months. In addition to the runway on Yongxing Island, China has reportedly completed a 3,000-meter-long runway on the Fiery Cross Reef (the Spratly Islands). Furthermore, it is reported that large-scale reclamation by China is in progress at the Johnson South Reef, about 150 kilometers from the Fiery Cross Reef. China is presumably planning to set up an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. I wonder if the consultations between China and ASEAN on COC mean anything.
After all, even if Japan views the maritime and air communications mechanism with China as part of “strategic reciprocity,” it is possible for China to ignore the hotline or come up with various pretexts for obstructing MSDF and ASDF activities. In other words, the communication mechanism is merely a tactic for China in its strategy to capture the Senkaku Islands and gain control over the waters and airspace of East Asia.
In a meeting with President Obama held in June 2013, President Xi Jinping asserted that “the Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate the two superpowers.” Since then, China has acted exactly in accordance with this statement. The first step is to eliminate U.S. military power from the inside the first island chain to make it China’s inland sea. We should keep a close eye on China’s efforts to expand its influence in the East Asia by taking advantage of both the U.S. and Japan while they focus on the moves of Islamic extremists.