What does it take to stop a Chinese land grab? Satellite coverage, lots of ships and America’s support
For decades, Japan controlled the Senkaku, a group of uninhabited islands west of Okinawa in the East China Sea.
China also claims the islands, just as it claims many of the more resource-rich features of the East and South China Seas.
But while China under President Xi Jinping has backed its claims with forced land grabs in the Paracel and Spratly island groups in the South China Sea – Beijing has built 27 outposts on these island groups – he does not have tried to seize the Senkaku.
It’s not hard to see why. With the support of the United States, Japan built its forces around the Senkaku. And successive Japanese administrations have made it clear that if China advances on the Senkakus, Japan will retreat.
“Although China views the islands as an integral part of Chinese territory and demonstrates its willingness to defend them, its motivation to use force to take these islands appears to be very low, suggesting that Japan’s current deterrence posture may be sufficient. to prevent a Chinese attack. “RAND, a think tank with close ties to the US military, explained in an April report.
Japan administered the Senkakus for over a century. Chinese authorities say the islands have always been Chinese. But it was not until 2010 that Beijing tried to put forward its claim. In September of the same year, a Chinese trawler, presumably under the control of the powerful Beijing Maritime Militia, crashed into two Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessels.
Everything changed after ramming. Since then, Chinese militia boats from the “gray zone” have regularly appeared around the Senkakus.
emphasis on regularly. Three times a month like clockwork, four Chinese boats spend two hours in Japanese waters around the island group – a reminder of Beijing’s claim to the islands and, if history is any guide, the forward- guard of a possible future Chinese landing on the Senkakus. When Beijing moves to seize a disputed island, militia boats usually arrive first.
Where other Chinese land grabs met little or no resistance, Japan quickly decided to strengthen its defenses around the Senkakus. No more ships. No more planes. No more surveillance. And realistic plans to retake the island group in case Chinese forces occupy it.
Moreover, Tokyo matches its rhetoric with its security posture. “Japan will respond effectively and quickly to gray area situations or any other act that may violate its sovereignty,” state guidelines for Japan’s national defense program in 2013. “In addition, if the acts in question are prolonged or intensify, Japan will respond transparently as the situation evolves, taking all possible measures for the defense and security of the sea and air space surrounding Japan. “
The Japanese Coast Guard is in charge of security around the Senkakus. JCG’s policy is to respond to every incursion of a Chinese ship with its own ship. Coast Guard vessels monitor, warn and maneuver near Beijing boats. This sends a signal and complicates Chinese operations around the islands.
To support its response, the Coast Guard is taking on larger and larger vessels. The service’s fleet expands this year to 144 large patrol vessels, 62 of which are capable of performing long-range operations around the Senkakus. “These capabilities are currently sufficient for the JCG to maintain a 24 hour presence around the Senkaku Islands to automatically respond to any intrusion,” RAND concluded.
The Coast Guard is also acquiring more helicopters. And to flag ships and planes, the service has changed the way it monitors Senkaku. Prior to 2018, the Coast Guard requested aerial satellite images from the Japanese intelligence community.
It took a long time. The Coast Guard now purchases high-resolution images twice a day from commercial satellite operators. “This system allows the JCG to quickly gather information and react quickly to changing situations. ”
The JCG is in charge of the security of Senkakus until the start of the shootings, when the Japanese Self-Defense Forces take over.
Both the JSDF and the JCG have expanded their forces for island operations. The navy adds destroyers and aircraft carriers. The Air Force is building new airstrips on small islands in the East China Sea and acquiring American-made F-35B stealth jump jets to take to the skies.
Perhaps most impressive, the Japanese military purchased 17 V-22 tiltrotors from the United States for $ 3 billion. The fast and distant V-22s, operating from Kisarazu in central Japan, could carry the first wave of Japanese troop counterattacks in case Chinese forces land on the Senkakus.
All of these developments have taken place with strong American support. In addition to the United States selling much of the new equipment it needs for island defense to Japan, the US and Japanese navies, air forces, and marine corps are training together more frequently.
While U.S. ships do not coordinate directly with Japanese ships during routine patrols in the East China Seas, odds are they would if the conflict escalated.
Remember what happened when, earlier this year, as many as 200 Chinese militia boats stormed the Whitsun Reef, which lies in the Philippine waters of the South China Sea.
Filipino warships sailed toward the reef from one direction while a powerful US Navy task force approached from another. The Chinese ships dispersed.
Whitsun Reef is a strategic backwater compared to the Senkakus – and the US-Japan alliance, on the contrary, is stronger than the US-Filipino alliance.
China takes its claim on the Senkaku seriously. But Japan could be even more serious about its own administration of the islands.
Most importantly, Tokyo backs its administration with serious military capabilities, a real plan and clear messages. “There is evidence that this approach works,” noted RAND.