The Senkaku Islands are hotly contested by China and Japan. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The People’s Republic of China always telegraphs its punches. But that doesn’t make them hurt any less, or make them easier to avoid.

Japan’s Sankei newspaper reports that Beijing has warned the Japanese government that many Chinese fishing boats may soon enter waters near the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands, which China also claims as its Diaoyu Islands.

Tending to confirm that, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, the commander of US Forces in Japan, said last week that the US was going to help monitor the Senkakus. He added that a lot of Chinese fishing boats just might be coming after mid-August.

The Sankei article also says the Chinese stated that Japan “is not entitled to demand” the fishing fleet cease its activities. If that part of the report is accurate, China is saying, “This is our territory…and from now we are going to prove it.” 

So far there’s no confirmation of the don’t-bother-trying-to-stop-us bit. But it rings true, given Sankei’s ties to defense and the paper’s track record. And it’s also in line with what Chinese have been saying.

Japan’s latest Defense White Paper describes Chinese activities in the East China Sea as a “relentless” attempt to change the status quo.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

That’s true enough, but China’s pressure on the Senkakus has been ongoing for eight years. By moving slowly, in passive-aggressive fashion, China gave Japan a welcome excuse to avoid taking on its persistent threat. Tokyo could convince itself that the Chinese weren’t really serious and might stop. 

Instead, it was enough to have Japanese ships from the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) and the Coast Guard shadow PLA Navy and Chinese Coast Guard ships and Chinese fishing vessels, while the Air Self Defense Force’s F-15s intercepted intruding PLA Air Force planes.

Meanwhile, Tokyo issued sternly worded statements.  

But the Chinese are now around the Senkakus in such numbers and for such lengths of time that it is wearing down the Japanese and undermining their claim to the islands.

Yes, Japan can respond to Chinese air and sea incursions. But the Japan Self Defense Force and Coast Guard don’t have the resources to match the Chinese.

Add in China’s huge fishing fleet and maritime militia (militarized fishing boats), and the Japanese rightly feel overwhelmed. The mismatch will widen as time passes.

At some point, Japan will face tough choices: Use force to defend its territory – or lose the territory via osmosis as the Chinese gradually swarm and absorb it.

Or accept humiliating negotiations and keep some of what it owns (for a while). Losing or negotiating away control of the Senkakus and the rest of the Ryukyu chain, which includes Okinawa, could be next.

Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

The Chinese most likely have in mind swallowing up the entire chain, also known as the Nansei Shoto. Timing is flexible.

Expect Beijing to announce before long that it has “administrative control” over the Senkakus, as evidenced by its continual presence in the area. 

China already makes life difficult for Japanese fishermen in the area. In early July, two Chinese Coast Guard ships pursued a Japanese fishing vessel near the Senkakus and ordered it out of “Chinese waters.” That sounds an awful lot like, “Don’t bother to try to stop us.”

Beijing will point out that if the government of Japan can’t protect its fishermen – and can’t do anything when a few hundred Chinese fishing vessels show up near the Senkakus – that shows how little administrative control Tokyo really has.

Tokyo shouldn’t be surprised. In 2016 the PRC sent 200-300 fishing vessels backed up by as many as 15 Coast Guard ships to swarm the Senkakus.

According to some Chinese sources at the time, China reckoned it could assert “administrative control” over the Senkakus any time. It was just sending a message while waiting for when the time was right.

Maybe the time is right.

Relations with Japan are frosty. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party recently moved to withdraw Xi Jinping’s invitation to visit Japan.

And the government of Japan created a $2 billion fund to move Japanese companies out of China, while also voicing disapproval of the PRC’s treatment of Hong Kong. The Japanese public is mostly negative on China, while blaming it for Covid-19. 

Image: Facebook

China is causing trouble on its periphery:  killing 20 Indian soldiers, threatening Taiwan, squatting in Indonesia’s fishing grounds, harassing Malaysian ships, sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel and locking fire control radar on a Philippine Navy ship.

And a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese naval ship off Shanghai a few months ago – perhaps intentionally.

Chinese pressure around the Senkakus is almost daring Japan to escalate. In fact, Beijing may hope the Japanese fire a shot – and thus give the PRC an excuse to play the aggrieved party in the East China Sea.

And don’t forget that resentment-fueled Chinese Communist Party leadership is keen to teach the Japanese a lesson for perceived humiliations in the 20th and 19th centuries.   

Tokyo’s recent Defense White Paper – like previous versions – accurately describes the serious threats facing Japan. But while the diagnosis is correct, the White Paper offers little in the way of cure.

At the end of the day, the Japan Self Defense Force is still seriously underfunded. It misses recruitment targets by 25% a year, and the naval component, which should play the leading role in East China Sea defense, is lacking in ships and personnel.

And don’t forget JSDF’s severe limitations when it comes to conducting joint operations. Defending Japan and its southern islands needs to be a joint Japan-US effort. But except for the US Navy and MSDF, Japanese and US forces have limited capabilities for joint operations – a shortcoming that has been well known for many years.

The Malabar joint exercises with US, Indian and Japanese vessels in 2018. Image: Handout/Agencies

JSDF is not even the sum of its parts. Even after 60 years of the Japan-US Security Treaty there is no joint headquarters where the two nations’ militaries coordinate and oversee the joint defense of Japan.

When General Schneider stated last week that the US will be helping Japan monitor the area around the Senkakus, that was a start

Better hurry and begin joint air and naval exercises and patrolling in the East China Sea and near the Senkakus. And start using the two US-controlled maritime firing ranges near the Senkakus that haven’t been used since the late 1970’s.

Establishing a “Joint Task Force Nansei Shoto” with headquarters in Okinawa is another long overdue idea.

What is happening has been obvious for years. The Chinese have been clear about what they have in mind. But for some reason, Tokyo couldn’t bring itself to do much about it.  Neither could the Americans.

Time is running out.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

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