Written by Harry Kazianis.

While China has multiple overlapping territorial claims with many of its neighbors in various parts of the East and South China Seas, none has more potential for great power conflict as claims concerning the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In fact, considering this hotly disputed area of the Asia-Pacific is contested by two of the world’s premier economic and military powers, China and also Japan, it is safe to say the area around the islands is one of only a few places on planet Earth that could spark a truly catastrophic conflict with possible nuclear ramification that could draw in the United States.

Called Diaoyu by China, Senkaku by Japan (the islands are also claimed by Taiwan) these small islands have been a constant flashpoint leading to at least one incident that came close to military confrontation. While today most media is focused on the various crises in the Middle East, the trend lines in the East China Sea point to a slowly escalating situation, that if not properly managed, could spiral into a tragic conflict.

In order to understand the deep-rooted tensions surrounding what are actually very small but geostrategically important islands with possible large deposits of natural resources, historical context is needed.[i]

Understanding the claims of both sides present and the evident they present is important. Japan and China lay claim to the islands under different aspects of international law.  Tokyo’s case rests on the idea of “occupation of terra nullius”—or land without an owner. Japan stresses that when it formally took over the area (in an 1895 cabinet decision), it had established the islands were uninhabited—and more importantly—showed no trace of having been under the control of Beijing.

For its part China asserts its case though what can be called an historical claim. Beijing claims to have evidence that it exercised sovereignty through various parts of its historical experience—not dissimilar to claims in the South China Sea. These include the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1912). China also points out the islands were ceded to Japan as part of the unjust 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the First Sino-Japanese War. Since the treaty came about presumably by force of arms—so this line of argument goes—they should be returned to China.  Beijing also bases some of its claims under the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations (1943 and 1945) that Japan must return all territories seized through war.

America also plays a role in the various claims and counter claims. At the conclusion of World War II, the islands were occupied, along with Ryukyu Islands, by the U.S. under the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco.  Control then reverted back to Japanese administration in 1972.  The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers the territory since Tokyo is the defacto administrator of the islands. While U.S. officials have made it now quite clear they wish to see both sides work towards some sort of compromise, multiple American officials—including the President Obama himself—have made it clear the islands would be defended, along with any other part of Japanese territory, from any sort of outside aggression.

While tensions today over the islands run high, the possibility of armed conflict is a relatively new phenomenon. During the 1970’s, Japan and China had different goals—the normalization of relations. Both sides understood the challenge the dispute over the islands could pose to such a goal. Creating an even larger stumbling block was a 1969 UN-led geologic survey that claimed possible vast natural resources in the surrounding area around the islands. Negotiators came up with an interesting compromise: to relegate the issue to future generations and/or downplay the dispute.  Both nations were more concerned about cementing ties in light of rising Soviet power in the Pacific than competing island claims.  Here the work of MIT professor M. Taylor Fravel, who is largely credited to bringing these discussions to light, is important:

In 1972, Zhou Enlai and Takeiri Yoshikazu (leader of the Komeito party) appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus in talks that would be held to normalize relations between the two countries.  In a recent book, Seton Hall scholar Yinan He cites a collection of documents on Chinese-Japanese relations: in July 1972, Zhou told Takeiri, “There is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands. It does not count a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal relations [between the two countries].”   A Japanese magazine article earlier this month contains a similar account.  Thus, from China’s point of view, the decision not to discuss the dispute at the time was a recognition that a dispute did exist.

Fravel also notes a similar discussion several years later that are also telling:

 Similarly, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and the Japanese Foreign Minister also appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus at a later time.  A chronology or nianpu of Deng’s activities published by a party research office summarizes a meeting between Deng and Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda.  According to the book, Deng stated: “It’s not that China and Japan do not have any problems. For example [there are] the Diaoyu Island and continental shelf issues. Don’t drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way.”

While neither side dropped its claims, tension over the area remained frozen until 2010. With the threat of the Soviet Union gone and the rise of nationalism in both countries, old claims resurfaced. Thanks to a 2010 incident involving the seizure by Japan of a Chinese fisherman near the islands the issue sparked a major diplomatic row. Matters grew more complicated in April 2012 when Tokyo’s then governor, Shintaro Ishihara, announced a plan during a lecture at the Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation to purchase 3 of the 5 islands from private Japanese owners, inflaming tensions.  The government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda felt compelled to act.  The government was concerned that if Ishihara purchased the disputed territory tensions would grow to unacceptable levels. Looking over its options, it was decided an effort must be made to head off the possible Ishihara purchase, having Japan buy the islands themselves—effectively nationalizing them. Tokyo, which expected a negative reaction from Beijing, felt it was important to control the situation and hedge against what was felt at the time would be an even less desirable outcome.  Japan saw the issue as a “transfer of property from a private owner to the central government and would not change the status quo.” China considered the action illegal which has led to strained ties to this day.

China’s reaction to brewing tensions over the contested islands in the East China Sea has grown ever more aggressive. China has utilized a strategy—as one scholar has dubbed it —of “small-stick diplomacy.” Beijing has sent varying amounts of non-naval maritime vessels, from fishing vessels to unarmed coast guard craft to press its claims. As China claims these islands as part of its “core interests,” Beijing feels it has the right to patrol them and fish them acting as if they are undisputed, sovereign waters. China has also sent air assets—namely reconnaissance aircraft and at times fighter aircraft in clear attempts to demonstrate sovereignty. An early 2013 incident involving a Chinese destroyer locking its firing-radar onto a Japanese destroyer and helicopter clearly demonstrated the dangerous escalatory nature of these competing claims. Beijing has also declared as of November 23, 2013, an ADIZ across a large swath of the East China Sea that covers the disputed islands. Less than twenty-four hours after China’s declaration, Washington was quick to reiterate its treaty commitments to Tokyo. In a statement by the U.S. Department of Defense, “We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The U.S. reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

China’s reaction has created an equally concerning Japanese reaction. Tokyo has sought to increase its defense budget after over a decade of small decreases. Japan is also re-orientating its forces towards the area of dispute with China, developing amphibious-landing capabilities and training with U.S. forces as well as increasing the procurement of ever-advanced conventionally powered submarines and highly advanced helicopter carriers that can deploy, in theory, American V-22 Osprey’s that could carry small groups of combat troops to the Senkakus.

So what happens if either side starts shooting over these small but hotly disputed islands?

When considering China’s and Japan’s escalating tensions over the Senkakus, Beijing’s A2/AD strategy is an extremely important aspect of such a discussion. China would essentially deploy the same strategy it would use against the U.S. Considering that Japan’s Navy, excluding the U.S., is the most advanced in Asia; China would have no choice but to use an asymmetric strategy in a wartime scenario. Most experts expect Washington would come to Tokyo’s aid. While U.S. officials—for obvious reasons—have not spelled out what assistance they would provide, it seems reasonable to suggest such efforts would be largely compromised of naval assets. Washington has forward deployed a Carrier Battle Group (or CBG) in Japan that would likely be utilized in such a scenario.

If a crisis broke out, China would gain considerable advantage in striking its opponents early with massive conventional force. One option would be a considerable kinetic strike utilizing its sizeable arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. Beijing could launch a massive conventional missile strike at allied planes sitting unprotected at airfields across the Asia-Pacific. As Roger Cliff explained in a May 2012 interview :

The problem is, there are hardly any shelters at all at most bases in the Asia-Pacific. Kadena Air Base, for example, has a grand total of 15 shelters, enough for at most 30 fighter aircraft if you squeeze two into each. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, also on Okinawa, has no aircraft shelters. There are also no shelters at MCAS Iwakuni and Yokota Air Base on Honshu, or Andersen Air Force Base.

In the event of war U.S. and Japanese forces would face tremendous challenges—including advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles—which could overwhelm, at least on paper, most allied ballistic missile defense systems by sheer numbers. Even assuming a hit to kill ratio of 1:1, Chinese rocketeers would have many more missiles than allied interceptors—essentially, simple math would be the biggest enemy of allied forces. Not even factoring in other domains of warfare, allied forces in a Senkakus conflict—while certainly formidable—would be highly susceptible to a Chinese preemptive or early missile offensive. With very little literature detailing Chinese views on escalation beyond academic works and retired military officials, it is hard to predict Chinese escalation strategies once conflict has begun.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Managing Editor of the Washington, DC based international affairs journal The National Interest. Mr. Kazianis is also a Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) at the China Policy Institute. Image Credit: CC by Times Asi/Flickr


[i] For a comprehensive analysis of tensions in the East China Sea please see: International Crisis Group, Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks (Brussels, 2013): http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/north-east-asia/china/245-dangerous-waters-china-japan-relations-on-the-rocks.aspx.

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