A J-15 fighter jet of the PLA Navy prepares to land on China's aircraft carrier Liaoning during a naval exercise in the western Pacific. Photo: AFP

Globally it is the South China Sea that garners headlines, as China extends its footprint along the “Nine Dash Line” and the United States and its allies push back.

But far more powerful forces are based in and around Northeast Asia’s East China Sea.

From Beijing’s perspective, the East China Sea resembles a lake – with the Chinese coast on the west side, the Japanese Nansei Shoto (Ryukyu) islands and Japan’s main islands on the east side, Taiwan on the south edge and Korea at the north end.

Chinese forces dominate the west of the “lake” – but not the other parts, which include vital access routes to the open Pacific. There, adversaries are well-positioned to monitor or shut strategic gaps.

Should conflict with the United States or its allies break out, breaking through this “first island chain” is a longstanding goal for Chinese strategists. While war is not imminent, China’s PLA will – like all good militaries – gnaw away at this big picture problem in 2020.

From south to north, here’s how it looks.

The strategic geography of the East China Sea presents China with a series of easily-closed gaps, dominated by the ‘First Island Chain’ if it seeks, in a future war, to break out into the open Pacific. Image: Patrick Dunne/Asia Times

Southern bastion

Take Taiwan, and it is smooth sailing into the Pacific. You also split the middle of the American defense line between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, while eliminating a threat to Chinese operations.

If Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-weng wins re-election in January, expect amped-up Chinese threats and heightened air and naval intimidation.

But despite the People’s Liberation Army’s increasingly lopsided advantage over Taiwan’s forces, no invasion is likely in the near future. A Chinese force could get ashore, but at a massive cost. On the political front, that would include decoupling China from the democratic world.

China would much prefer to win Taiwan without fighting.

Unsinkable carrier

Farther north, China keeps chipping away at Japan – focusing on Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China also claims, at the lower end of the Ryukus, also known as the Nansei Shoto, of which Okinawa is the principal island.

Beijing’s strategy: Ratchet up the pressure with more ships and aircraft in more places and more often than the Japan Self Defense Force, or JSDF, can handle – and eventually absorb the Senkakus, which China calls the Diayous, by osmosis. This won’t happen in 2020, although Chinese military intrusions in 2019 were the most numerous ever.

Could Tokyo and Beijing cut a deal? Unlikely.

Beijing is extending a pragmatic hand toward Tokyo – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday, and plans to host him in Tokyo in April – so is less shrill about the Senkakus these days.

Beijing’s claims remain, and the JSDF continues fortifying islands in the Ryukus with weaponry intended to “close the gaps.” However, recent reports that Japan will permit a US airbase to rise on Mageshima Island is a red herring – for now. A base won’t be ready for a decade, at least.

The JSDF is formidable – and Beijing knows it. Japan’s navy, particularly its submarines and anti-submarine capabilities, are excellent. Tokyo invests in expensive hardware, including F35 fighters, Aegis Ashore anti-missile systems and F35 aircraft carriers.

Still, the JSDF lacks coherent planning, has limited tri-service capability and can’t attract enough recruits. This leaves Japan dependent on the US to backstop its defense.

Ultimately, it is fear of the Americans that limits Chinese aggression. Japanese vessels and the US Navy work well together and are ready to fight in the East China Sea. Okinawa-based US Marines are also increasing cooperation with Japanese counterparts.

Tokyo and Washington do squabble. US President Donald Trump reckons Tokyo does not pay enough, some Americans reckon Japan doesn’t do enough – and some Japanese reckon they do too much. But the relationship suits both nations.

The year 2020 will see more JSDF regional engagement, with ship visits and exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Beyond PR, this is evidence that Tokyo will challenge China’s dominance of the region.

Thorny alliance

Moving to the Korean peninsula, South Korea remains a headache – for everyone.

The US desperately wants Japan and South Korea to get along. With minimal cooperation, it is an easy matter to close off the north end of the East China Sea.

The Japanese, though, bring out the worst in the Koreans.

But despite fussing over Washington’s demands for more money for US troops and Seoul’s behavior towards Tokyo, the US and South Korea have a serious defense relationship is serious – and it will remain so.

The Koreans, as they prepare to take over wartime operational control of their forces from US generals, are spending hugely on expensive assets. Seoul also paid for the massive new US base at Pyeongtaek. Its political significance is matched by its vulnerability to North Korean rockets.

Read: Why a giant US base in South Korea should concern China.

So, unlike many US allies, the South Koreans spend on defense. And they will fight.

South Korean F15s fired towards Russian aircraft violating Korean air space in 2019. Seoul is far more wary of Beijing, but its naval base on Jeju island – built despite civic protests – is arguably more useful against China than against North Korea.

So what are the prospects of Seoul sliding towards Beijing? Recent meetings between the two nations’ officials and a verbal promise to cooperate on defense raised some eyebrows. But while some Koreans consider the US presence problematic, the vast majority of Koreans support it – 92% according to a December poll.

In 2020, both sides will probably bicker less. Trump is ameliorating his demand for a five-fold increase in South Korean payments for US forces and Kim Jong Un might assist by reminding citizens why GIs are in South Korea.

Wild, wild card

As for North Korea, in 2020 we’ll be back where we were in 2018 before the US-South Korea courtship of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Expect threats, missile tests and sanctions busting – the latter aided and abetted by China and Russia.

Pyongyang won’t denuclearize and will make gradual improvements in weapons and delivery systems, with submarine-launched missiles a particular concern.

But from Washington’s perspective, there’s one useful thing about North Korea: It, along with China, scares Japan. This concentrates minds – even among politicians and officials otherwise uninterested in defense.

Irritating, but …

Russia is also a regional factor. Moscow’s cooperation with China – such as joint intrusions into South Korea’s air identification zone in 2019 and joint military drills in 2018 – irritate the Americans and Japanese.

But Russia also sells submarines and advanced weaponry to Vietnam – the one Southeast Asian country that won’t roll over to China.

And President Vladimir Putin must often wonder if a Shenzhen will spring up in the Russian Far East. There are far more Chinese than Russians in that vast, underpopulated neighborhood, and Beijing reckons the Tsars stole the territory in the first place.

China’s game

While China has slim prospects for breaking through the East China Sea island barriers, Beijing is persistent and patient. China this month rolled out its first locally built aircraft carrier and is building high-quality ships and aircraft at a rapid clip. It out-built the US Navy by a 4:1 ratio over the last decade.

Regionally, it has perhaps 10 times more ships available than the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. And don’t forget China’s Coast Guard, law enforcement ships and so-called maritime militia – its weaponized fishing fleet.

Looking ahead, do the math. The US either builds a lot more ships – and fast – or gets its regional partners better organized and armed. Ideally, both. Will that happen in 2020? No.

And Beijing is looking toward distant horizons. It has spent 30 years insinuating itself into the economies, societies and political leadership of Central Pacific states – Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Palau – and even US territories of Northern Marianas and Guam. And it has stepped up efforts in recent years in the South Pacific.

China has not made military inroads – yet. Those will come later.

Currently, Beijing is leaning on the Philippines, and upping its game in the South China Sea, to outflank Taiwan. The matter is not decided, however.

Next year will see continued Chinese efforts to chisel away at Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Chisel long enough and, one day, something gives.

That won’t happen in 2020. However, the regional strategic chessboard may look vastly different in 2030.

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