The Senkaku Islands are once again emerging as a hotspot in the Western Pacific region. Indications of new tensions between China and Japan have risen to the surface since the beginning of 2021. In January, the National People’s Congress passed a law allowing Chinese coastguard vessels to use ‘all necessary means’ to stop foreign vessels from illegally entering Chinese waters, including the use of weapons. Since then, China’s coastguard has expanded its presence in the waters around the islands- known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and Diaoyu Islands in China. Last year, Chinese coastguard vessels entered the contested waters an average of twice a month in 2020 to at least twice a week in February, 2021.
The new law, coupled with the rise in activity by Chinese ships, is causing concern in Tokyo. The Japanese government is presently, according to sources, considering a response. Japan is not looking to escalate the situation. The game plan for the moment appears to be to increase the diplomatic pressure on China, however, Japan has made it clear it will protect the islands, as well as Japanese fishing boats in the surrounding waters.
In late February, a pair of Chinese coastguard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters and approached a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku chain. A Japanese patrol vessel was called to provide escort for the Japanese boat and warn off the Chinese ships. Japan’s defense ministry also noted that around the same time there were two other Chinese vessels, one apparently armed with an autocannon, cruising nearby, right on the edge of Japan’s territorial waters.
In spite of the Japanese government’s to improve relations with China, public opinion in Japan has turned decidedly against China. The COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese posturing near the Senkaku Islands, and the crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have combined to create an anti-China mood in Japan. That could become a factor which influences Tokyo’s future actions if Sino-Japanese tensions escalate in the near future.
Today the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) activated Japan’s first marine unit since World War II. The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) has come into being to help Japan meet the evolving security situation in that part of the world. The troop strength of the brigade will be around 2,1000 troops, NCOs, and officers. It’s equipment will include V-22 Ospreys, and AAV7A1 amphibious landing vehicles. Although a brigade in name, the ARDB more closely resembles a US Marine Expeditionary Unit in size, organization and capabilities.
The main role of the marine unit will be to retake islands from an occupying force. In recent years Japan and China have seen a rise in tensions over Japanese islands at the edge of the East China Sea. As access to the Western Pacific becomes more of a priority for China, Japan is not taking the potential threat likely. Chinese military capabilities continue to increase and Japan is making strides in its own rearming process. The ARDB marks a significant increase in Tokyo’s ability to defend its most exposed territories.
Creation of the marine unit has brought controversy too. Amphibious and expeditionary forces have the capability to project power far beyond a home nation’s borders. Japan’s post-World War II constitution renounces the nation’s right to wage war. Japan’s neighbors could point to the creation of the ARDB as a provocation if they wanted.
In any case, Tokyo’s rearmament is moving at full speed ahead. The Japanese Self Defense Forces are loading for bear….or dragon, as the case may be.
The People’s Republic of China’s latest responses to an arbitration court in the Hague’s ruling last month came in the form of a salvo. From diplomatic and legal declarations in Beijing to military exercises at sea, China is making a determined effort to counter the ruling, render it insignificant and establish its dominance in the seas around China.
It began on Monday with a live-fire exercise in the East China Sea. The political purpose of the exercise was to highlight Beijing’s determination to defend its sovereignty claims with military force if a situation requires. A statement released before the exercises officially described them in a practical, but somewhat alarming manner. “An information technology-based war at sea is sudden, cruel and short, which requires fast transition to combat status, quick preparation and high assault efficiency.” The exercises included missile and torpedo firings, coordinated tactical maneuverings and the use of electronic warfare assets. Units from all of China’s fleets, naval aviation and coast guard took part. Although it was held in the East China Sea, the message was clear: China will use military power to defend its possessions.
The next moves came on Tuesday when China’s Supreme Court warned that illegal fishing in Chinese territorial waters could carry the penalty of a one-year imprisonment. The court defined those waters as including China’s exclusive economic zones. The South China Sea or the Hague ruling were not mentioned in the judicial interpretation. In fact, the court declared that Chinese holdings in the Spratly Islands are not entitled to an exclusive economic zone. That being said, the implications made by the court are clearly geared towards the South China Sea.
Shortly after the judicial interpretation was released, China’s defense minister General Chang Wanquan warned of offshore security threats and called for preparations for a ‘People’s war at sea” to safeguard China’s national sovereignty. Wanquan’s comments can be dismissed as political saber-rattling that will amount to nothing. The timing of the comments, along with the other Chinese activity suggest that it could be more significant though. Beijing is making a calculated effort to increase tensions in the region with the G20 meeting coming to China in early September.