Escalation in the Senkaku Islands? It’s China’s Choice

It has been nearly 15 years since the Chinese started moving in on Japan’s Senkaku Islands. Chinese pressure is indeed troublesome, but for now, it’s manageable – even if the Japan Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) are overstretched. 

The Japanese have patiently dealt with near-daily aggression and pressure from Chinese naval, coast guard, maritime militia, and fishing vessels as well as regular aerial intrusions into Japanese territory.

The PRC would like nothing more than for the Japanese to fire ー even just one shot. Beijing would then claim they were provoked into “defending” themselves. Japan has not taken the bait, however.

Things have not blown up.

But it’s best not to assume this state of affairs will continue in the same mode for another 15 years. Or 15 months, or even 15 days.

A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat responding to Chinese government vessels and maritime militia “fishing boats” starting their process of “flooding the zone” along the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands. Ishigaki City, Okinawa. (August 2016, provided by the Japan Coast Guard)

What is the likelihood that this somewhat manageable Chinese grey zone activity escalates into something worse?

The likelihood is high. And it is up to the Chinese.

The escalation move might be either “flooding the zone” tactics or actual shooting. Although the former could of course lead to the latter.

For now, however, the  “kinetic” option is less likely, unless it’s in conjunction with an attack on Taiwan.

More likely, China will keep increasing the pressure – with more ships, boats, and aircraft in more places and more often around the Senkakus. For now, the People’s Republic of China is aiming to reach a point where it simply absorbs the Senkakus by “osmosis.”

The Chinese have “flooded the zone” before with dozens or more fishing boats – backed by the Chinese Coast Guard. And with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) on-call.

These were warnings to Tokyo that it can do it again – with even more boats – anytime it wants.

At some point – and in the not-so-distant future – when China decides the “time is right” the Japanese defenders could be overwhelmed.

And at that point, Japan will have some hard choices to make. By itself, it will have a very hard time rolling back the Chinese.

Japan is counting on American support.

Read the rest at JapanForward.

Grant Newsham is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.

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