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Artyom Lukin

PhD in Political Science, Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations of the Eastern University – School of Regional and International Studies of the Far Eastern Federal University

Andrey Gubin

PhD in Political Science, Assistant Professor at the International Relations Department of Far Eastern Federal University, RIAC Expert

With the Asia Pacific region progressively moving to the center of global politics and economics, the Northeast is definitely becoming the regional centre of gravity, attracting the colliding interests of great powers including China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia. As a result, stability in North East Asia is now of global significance.

With the Asia Pacific region progressively moving to the center of global politics and economics, the Northeast is definitely becoming the regional centre of gravity, attracting the colliding interests of great powers including China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia. As a result, stability in North East Asia is now of global significance.

East China Sea: Tempest Rising?

Should a war break out in East Asia, it is likely to be naval due to regional geography, which divides key actors by water. Large-scale overland operations, for example in Europe, Middle East or the Korean peninsula, are fraught with colossal human and material losses, keeping politicians wary. These risks are lesser in unpopulated ocean spaces, effectively lowering the threshold for military decisions.

Northeast Asia’s main conflict potential is concentrated in the East China Sea, where China and Japan are the key antagonists contesting the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands and the delimitation of the exclusive economic zones.

Worsening symptoms and escalating tensions are on hand. In 2012, China was extremely harsh in its reaction to the decision of the Japanese government to nationalize the Senkaku Islands by purchasing from a private owner. Chinese aircraft and vessels more and more frequently intrude into Japan’s jurisdiction within the disputed area. In Japan, public sentiments are unquestionably drifting in an anti-Chinese direction, which was clearly demonstrated by the December 2012 parliamentary elections. Among other things, new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised (although has not yet provided) a permanent presence of Japanese officials and coast guards in the contested area. Tokyo has already announced a military spending increase in 2013, the first one in eleven years, to match Abe’s election pledges to build up military power and counter the Chinese threat.

Should a war break out in East Asia, it is likely to be naval due to regional geography, which divides key actors by water.

Some analysts believe that a war in the North China Sea, something absolutely incredible several years ago, could become a reality. The cause lies far from the military and strategic importance of these uninhabited islets or the hydrocarbon deposits of the East China Sea. The Senkaku dispute has obtained a symbolic significance, having grown into a matter of principle for the rising and increasingly nationalist China and the weakening Japan attempting to preserve its position.

Will the U.S.A. Step In?

Photo: AP Photo/Kyodo News
Territorial disputes in the APR.
Interview with Alexei Fenenko

The U.S. administration has repeatedly proclaimed its neutrality in the Senkaku dispute but at the same time recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control over the islands. Consequently, the territories are covered by the American-Japanese Security Treaty (1, 2). At the same time, the Americans have never undertaken to interfere and use military force on the side of their Japanese ally.

Washington is well aware of the risks ensuing from the Japan-China confrontation, on the one hand, and its allied obligations to Tokyo, on the other. Because of this, the U.S. approach to the Senkaku dispute seems somewhat similar to its decades-long policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan. According to reputable American experts, if Tokyo initiates a crisis, the U.S.A. may as well stop short of siding with Japan in its military collision with China.

Despite the above reservations, in a critical scenario in the East China Sea, the U.S.A. is likely to render Japan military support if Tokyo fails to settle matters on its own, although the forecast seems valid only for the short- and medium-term future while America’s military power manifestly exceeds Chinese capabilities in the western Pacific.

Other Actors

Should Beijing employ nuclear weapons, despite its declarative position of its nonuse against nonnuclear states under any circumstances, U.S. guarantees towards Japan will come into force. Russia is sure to refrain from supporting China with a nuclear strike against American territory, since our strategic partnership lacks relevant provisions.

What to expect from other North Asian states if China and Japan clash?

South Korea would definitely get in dire straits. While having claims on Japan similar to the Chinese, Seoul is militarily and politically allied to the U.S.A. Hence, the Republic of Korea is likely to officially remain neutral, although many Koreans will wish Tokyo suffers a defeat.

North Korea is China’s ally but is unlikely to interfere, since the country has no direct interests in the East China Sea and also lacks military capabilities to tip the balance.

Just like Beijing, Taipei regards the disputed islands as Chinese territory. But it is practically impossible to imagine Taiwan swept over by nominal patriotism and joining the fight against the U.S.A. and Japan, the main guarantors of its sovereignty. Military action against continental China is also out of question.

Japan-China Balance of Forces in a Probable Conflict

Photo: wikipedia.com
Andrey Gubin:
Naval Buildup to Cure the Crisis: Japan

 

Should Beijing employ nuclear weapons, despite its declarative position of its nonuse against nonnuclear states under any circumstances, U.S. guarantees towards Japan will come into force. Russia is sure to refrain from supporting China with a nuclear strike against American territory, since our strategic partnership lacks relevant provisions. Hence, we must factor out Chinese nuclear potential.

Japan possesses major navy and air force bases on Okinawa, which makes its position advantageous because the island may be used for concentrating main forces and creating a beachhead, in fact an unsinkable aircraft carrier. At that, Okinawa is reliably protected from air attacks (including cruise missiles) by Patriot systems, jet fighters and seaborne air defenses.

Japanese tactical aviation has no in-flight refueling capacity, but due to the short flight time from Okinawa, it can practically ensure continuous patrolling and execute missions against naval and air targets. Massive Japanese airstrikes against overland Chinese targets are very complicated because such missions are feasible only with minor loads within pinpoint attacks.

An airborne assault at the Senkaku Islands should be also ruled out since the islands are too small and secure deliveries of troops are extremely problematic.

Moscow will definitely sense the consequences of an East China Sea war, primarily in the economic sphere. Even a temporary rupture of commercial and financial links between China and Japan or China and the U.S.A., as well as a possible American blockade of Chinese maritime communications would cause a global economic crisis, capable of triggering economic pain for Russia.

Without damage to the defense of its main territory, Japan may bring about one-third of its aircraft (about 100 in number) to the conflict area. The core of the air force includes up-to-date aircraft intended for bombing and guided-missile missions against marine targets outside the effective area of Chinese seaborne air defense systems, including those at great distances. Tokyo is also equipped with early warning and electronic warfare aircraft to considerably simplify control of the air and sea space, direct air wings to targets, and also suppress Chinese electronics.

China may concentrate the core of its weapons and support facilities around the cities of Fuzhou, Taizhou and Ningbo. There is no reliable data on radar coverage of the Chinese territory but in case of a conflict, it should be definitely improved in the key areas, just as the ground-based air defense systems.

Due to considerable size of the country, massive movements of weapons will be difficult. Besides, China will not be able to fully remove the defense umbrella from the Russian border in the north or weaken its Indian frontier. The conditions of its aircraft and experience of its pilots are also uncertain, which means that the initial employment of the combat aircraft fleet is unlikely to exceed a level of 15 percent, i.e. roughly 200 aircraft.

An air war would repeat a Soviet-American confrontation as China is sure to test its multipurpose SU-27 fighters, both Russian and Chinese-made, which outpace the opponents in flight characteristics and are highly effective against naval and air targets.

Photo: Xinhua Agency
Prokhor Tebin:
The Chinese Aircraft Carrier Fleet

Although the distance from airfields to Senkaku will be somewhat greater than for the Japanese, the Chinese will retain the technical capability to have a permanent presence in the disputed area. However, due to geography, Japan will have better naval and air control of the Chinese air route over the East China Sea than China will over Japanese movements from Okinawa.

The air force of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has few early warning and control aircraft, as well as no hands-on experience in air group directing and interacting with the navy. Hence, in an air war, the Chinese will primarily rely on its scale advantage, while the Battle of Senkaku will initially inflict significant damage on their forces. At the same time, the Chinese could compensate their aircraft losses by moving air wings from other areas, while in the future, the construction of new aircraft might be of use as the annual renovation rate reaches 100 units.

The situation at sea is much the same. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force is a modern full-fledged fleet able to deploy in the Senkaku area at least four Aegis destroyers from bases in Yokosuka, Sasebo and Kure. These ships provide efficient sea and air sensing, target detection and fire control for the entire group.

Japan may also employ a dozen less sophisticated destroyers for submarine defense and short-range air defense. Up to eight diesel submarines may be allocated to monitor Chinese nuclear submarines. The new helicopter-carrying destroyer Hyuga is capable of antisubmarine missions within the squadron format. Japan also has landing ships. However, Senkaku could be assaulted only in small-size groups by helicopters and air-cushion boats with no heavy weapons. Besides, an amphibious operation would bring success only in the situation of sea and air superiority that could not be provided under the circumstances by either side.

Notably, to establish an Okinawa outpost, the Japanese would have to bring lots of equipment, ammunition and material by sea. Even the Pacific route entering the East China Sea at the final stage is fraught with momentous threats, which means that the convoys would require meaningful antisubmarine defense.

At the same time, Japanese ships would not be able to hit facilities in China's territory because Japan has been prohibited from possessing appropriate missile systems.

The Chinese Navy is formidable, with its Eastern Fleet (based mostly in Ningbo and Shanghai) deployed in the potential conflict area. The Fleet's core consists of four Russian-built destroyers with deadly anti-ship weapons. Also available are seven up-to-date diesel submarines effective for all types of missions including subsurface and surface tracking, employment of anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, as well as mining. However, the Eastern Fleet lacks efficient antisubmarine capabilities. Importantly, the Chinese have at least 20 missile boats that would not allow Japanese surface ships to approach the coastline.

Under a Senkaku conflict, part of the Southern Fleet is certain to step in and eliminate the apparent Japanese superiority at sea. Its most advanced ships are equipped with the Chinese analog of the Aegis multipurpose system and can destroy surface and air targets at a safe distance from Japanese fire.

The two fleets jointly have 20 landing ships of different types but a large-scale amphibious operation at Senkaku is unlikely due to the above reasons.

China may as well save up its Northern Fleet, except for the multipurpose nuclear submarines. There is no reliable data on the number of modern nuclear submarines (supposedly, three), as well as about the readiness of the four outdated ones. Nevertheless, at least two submarines could be used to interrupt supply lines to Okinawa. The Chinese aircraft-carrying cruiser Liaoning is undergoing tests and is not yet ready for engagement.

Thus, if a China-Japan conflict over Senkaku erupts with no third party involved, Beijing is likely to win, although with heavy losses. The reason is mainly due to Chinese naval and air numerical superiority, as well as because of considerable reserves and in comparable or superior performances of combat system and weapons, which outweigh Japan’s edge in organization and control.

America Steps in

The U.S. administration has repeatedly proclaimed its neutrality in the Senkaku dispute but at the same time recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control over the islands. Consequently, the territories are covered by the American-Japanese Security Treaty.

As has been mentioned, the U.S.A. is likely to support Japan militarily, although the real point is in the nature of American involvement.

As a start, Washington is likely to opt for a mild scenario and send a controlling group that would not interfere but cool down the Chinese by its presence. Through a war game in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy would effectively prevent the Chinese Southern Fleet from approaching the Senkaku area and help out Japan to equalize the balance. The Americans will be eager to assess the PLA potential by proxy.

If these measures prove inefficient and the Chinese get the upper hand, Washington will have to dare direct action to prevent a Japanese defeat by employing its 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Sasebo and Guam, as well as the Anderson airbase at Guam.

Photo: RIA Novosti
China – Japan Dispute over Senkaku Islands

Since the U.S. superiority in strategic arms is indisputable, it could arrange a harsh demonstration using cruise missiles and strikes against airfields and navy bases. Chinese current naval and air potential is clearly insufficient to counter a joint U.S.-Japanese force. The American Navy and Air Forces possess tremendous battle experience. At that, the U.S.-Japanese interaction should go ahead smoothly because Japanese equipment is adapted to the U.S. standards and the sides carry out regular war games.

Moreover, the U.S.A. could press China with political, diplomatic and, importantly, economic sanctions up to an overall trade embargo and naval blockade. Since the Chinese economy still depends on trade with America, especially in view of maritime hydrocarbon supplies, an economic blockade could prove highly effective. But such a decision seems even more difficult than military action. Because of China's importance in the global and American economies, over time the trade embargo could become a double-edged sword.

Forecasting a Japan-China collision with possible U.S. involvement in 10-15 years is quite difficult because Beijing will double its war potential both in quality and quantity. Japan is likely to remain at the same level, while the U.S.A. will somewhat build up its military presence in the Western Pacific but face significant hurdles in expanding military capacities due to budget limitations. As a result, in the long run the scales are going to definitely tip in favor of China.

Outcomes

While the conflict outcomes seem infinitely numerous, here are five basic scenarios.

  1. China's defeat and ensuing bipolar confrontation. A defeat would trigger an escalation of mass nationalism and harsher anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiments in China. Craving revenge, the Chinese would prepare for another war. The international order in Asia Pacific would become a confrontational bipolar system – China against the bloc of the U.S.A., Japan and their allies – teetering on the brink of war.
  2. China's defeat and regime change. The scenario would be similar to Argentina's fate after defeat in the Falklands War [1]. A crushing military defeat would give rise to public unrest against Communist Party rule followed by a radical transformation of the regime and ascension of new political forces with more democratic but perhaps equally nationalist views.
  3. A battle draw. The Japanese retain control of the disputed islands but the Chinese Navy and Air Force inflict major damage on the Japanese-American force without suffering catastrophic losses, so that each side could declare victory. Most likely, confrontational bipolarity in Asia Pacific consolidates, and the two sides prepare for another fight.
  4. China wins and Japan loses. The scenario appears feasible if the U.S.A. refrains from rendering Japan effective military support. Japan suffers a defeat, and China takes control over the islands. Three alternatives are to be expected.
  5. One. The defeat boosts nationalist and revanchist sentiments in Japan that would abandon the established but unreliable alliance with the U.S.A., give up military self-limitations, maybe including those on the development of nuclear weapons, and prepare for a lengthy and fierce confrontation against China. The Asia Pacific region would obtain a tripolar system resting on China, the U.S.A. and Japan.

    Two. A defeated Japan realizes the pointlessness of further confrontation. Following the pattern of the Pacific War defeat when Tokyo forcibly recognized Washington's supremacy, Japan pronounces China its new suzerain and breaks with the U.S.A. Today, a segment of Japanese elite seems willing to enter the Chinese sphere of influence [2]. Oddly enough, a defeat could strengthen these sentiments, demonstrating the futility of resisting the growing Chinese power.

    Three. Shocked by a crushing defeat, Japan despairs anout its future and effectively turns into a U.S. protectorate. Most likely, the process facilitates a harsh Beijing vs. Washington bipolarity in Asia Pacific similar to scenario number one.

  6. A community of security. Irrespective of the victor, the conflict brings colossal material damage to all sides and brings about major changes. Tokyo and Washington realize that China has grown into an indisputably powerful state and is able to inflict unacceptable damage on any enemy, even using limited force. Beijing abandons doubts about Japan's resolve (with U.S. support) to defend its national interests. Both sides come to realize that the conflict may easily escalate, even with nuclear dimensions that would put the very existence of states at stake. The East China Sea crisis reaches the turning point similar to the Caribbean crisis between the U.S.A. and the USSR that helps facilitate the establishment of a regional community of security [3].

Conclusions for Russia

Relatively distant from Russia, the conflict will not pose a direct military threat. However, Moscow will definitely sense the consequences of an East China Sea war, primarily in the economic sphere. Even a temporary rupture of commercial and financial links between China and Japan or China and the U.S.A., as well as a possible American blockade of Chinese maritime communications would cause a global economic crisis, capable of triggering economic pain for Russia. Hence, Russia should use every available lever, mostly diplomatic, to prevent a China-Japan crisis. Moscow and Washington might as well act jointly to restrain the conflicting parties, where the U.S.A. could influence its ally Japan, and Russia could hold back China, its strategic partner.

1. After the crisis, the then Argentinean leader General Leopoldo Galtieri was dismissed, and mass protests against the military rule broke out, followed by democratic elections in 1983. According to some assessments, the Malvinas War thrust the Argentinean economy 15 years back.

2. Luttwak E. The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy. Cambridge, MA: The Belkhap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. P. 125–126.

3. Community of security is an international system where participants refrain from force in mutual relations and settle disputes only by peaceful means. Currently, four such communities are known, i.e. Europe, North America, South America, and (with certain reservations) Southeast Asia.

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