By Satoshi Ogawa in Suffolk, Virginia
About 20 former senior Japanese and U.S. government officials and former Self-Defense Forces (SDF) officers gathered in late March and divided up into three teams playing the roles of the Japanese, U.S., and Chinese governments to participate in a simulation exercise organized by Sakakawa Peace Foundation USA, a research institute in Washington, D.C. This exercise was based on the following hypothetical scenario: An armed group landed on the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa. While the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and the police were struggling to suppress the intruders, China hinted at intervention, sending its military vessels to the Senkaku area. We took a closer look at the two cases involving the highest level of tension to examine the issues involved.
Case 1: Landing by an armed group
A heavily-armed Japanese right-wing group landed on Uotsuri Island in the Senkakus. Via the Internet, it called for Japan’s physical occupation of the Senkakus.
One of the simulations was based on the above crisis situation. The Japan team decided to dispatch three JCG patrol boats (including one helicopter carrier) with a joint JCG-police force of 1,000 on board. They agreed to respond without using the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) partly because this was a Japanese armed group.
At this point, the Japan team’s phone rang. The China team called to say: “The Chinese navy will not take action in the next 48 hours, but we cannot wait indefinitely.” This was a warning that the Chinese navy would act to evict the armed group. The Chinese side suspected that the Japanese government was supporting the armed group in secret. It moved its military vessels closer to the Senkakus. The Japan team countered with: “The Senkakus are Japan’s territory, so this is a domestic issue for Japan.” They ended the telephone conservation without coming to an agreement.
China claims that the Senkakus are its territory. The China team was concerned that “if we do not take action as time goes by, demonstrations to protest against the government may occur, and this may endanger the political regime.”
The Japan team moved quickly to arrest the members of the armed group. It had judged that China’s 48-hour warning meant that “if there is an explosion of nationalist sentiments in China, the Chinese government will be forced to take action,” as well as “if the SDF does not move, the Chinese armed forces will also not get involved.”
The JCG helicopter carrying police officers headed to the Senkakus, but shots were fired from the island. Japan was unable to suppress the armed group after 48 hours.
This came as a shock to the Japan team. Some team members started to talk about mobilizing the Ground SDF for security duties. The team member playing the role of the JCG argued that “this situation can be handled without the SDF,” so the team stopped short of mobilizing the SDF. Behind this was the opinion that “the SDF should not be dispatched to deal with Japanese nationals” and concerns that “deployment of the SDF would give China an excuse to send in its armed forces.”
The U.S. team, which was worried that the situation might drag on, asked for an explanation from the Japan team because it needed an assurance that the crisis could be resolved at an early date. Thinking that Japan might send in the SDF, the U.S. team was considering the deployment of U.S. forces if Japan requested joint defense under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
In response, the Japan team told the U.S. team that it would not dispatch the SDF and would end the crisis by firing the JCG’s 40-mm machine guns from the sea, even at the expense of killing or injuring the armed group members. It kept repeating that “this is a domestic issue for Japan” and did not request support from the U.S. forces.
The U.S. team’s main goal was to “prevent the aggravation of the situation and avoid war.” Therefore, it welcomed and supported Japan’s consistent nonmilitary response. At the same time, it asked China to exercise restraint and not take any military action.
Meanwhile, the U.S. forces issued a secret order for its troops to move to the Western Pacific in preparation for a contingency, but there was no sense of an imminent crisis.
The China team’s response went beyond the expectations of Japan and the U.S. It was considering deploying missile destroyers to Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkakus and sending special forces to land on the islands. Since the U.S. forces did not increase the pressure, it reckoned that there would be no U.S. military intervention.
The consensus in the Japan team was “the SDF should not be deployed in order not to aggravate the situation.” However, due to inadequate communication with the China team, the Chinese side thought that Japan lacked the will and ability to deal with the situation, causing it to take up the dangerous option of sending its armed forces to the Senkakus.
The exercise ended at this point.
Case 2: Collision between JCG patrol boat and Chinese ship
Six China Coast Guard (CCG) ships and more than 20 fishing boats intruded into Japanese waters near the Senkakus. A JCG patrol boat collided with a CCG ship and one Chinese crew member was thrown overboard.
The Japan team decided to give top priority to preventing the Chinese from landing on the islands. It sent 10 JCG patrol boats as reinforcement. In preparation for the possible aggravation of the situation, a Maritime SDF Aegis ship moved to a position closer to the Senkakus than the Chinese ships.
The U.S. team prioritized “preventing the escalation of the conflict and easing tension.” It asked both the Japanese and Chinese sides to exercise restraint.
The China team contacted the U.S. team to assert that “Japan was the first to take provocative action.” It suggested the simultaneous withdrawal of both sides’ ships from the Senkaku area and asked the U.S. to mediate.
The U.S. team welcomed this proposal as a step that would lead to “easing of tension.” It sounded out Japan on this. Japan was wary that this was a Chinese tactic to weaken Japan’s position with regard to sovereignty over the Senkakus, so it rejected this proposal.
However, the U.S. team reiterated its strong demand for Japan to withdraw its ships immediately. Pressed to reconsider, the Japan team still refused to “withdraw,” but decided to “stop SDF and JCG reinforcements, reduce the number of ships, and return to the JCG’s normal patrol regime.”
The U.S. team burst into cheers when informed by phone of Japan’s latest decision, in the belief that gaiatsu [external pressure] actually worked.
The exercise ended at this point. However, a member of the Japan team complained that “the U.S. gave priority to preventing conflict with China over Japan’s position on sovereignty over the Senkakus.”