JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 2, 2015
TOKYO, Japan — China’s war to supplant the United States as the regional super power in the Far East and western Pacific is under full steam and gobbling up its objectives.
Over the last 15 years, China has not only built a large and potentially effective navy, it has by stealth and cunning either caused divisions between the United States and its Asian allies, or cast doubt among target states whether Washington can be trusted to support them, or both.
It is true that hardly a shot has been fired in anger, though there are continuing confrontations over disputed islands and maritime territory in the East and South China seas that could easily become shooting wars. And one has to stand here, on the front line, to see clearly that there is a war going on. But that is part of the brilliance of Beijing’s strategy. It is a skilful blend of the teachings of the Chinese military theorist, Sun Tzu, from over 2,000 years ago, the 19th Century American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and includes a heavy dose of the “people’s war” doctrine of dynasty founder Mao Zedong.
Mahan taught that any country wishing to be a regional or global power in the age of commerce must have a navy that can command the oceans to protect its maritime economic corridors and, like any imperial power, dominate the countries that provide resources.
Sun Tzu insisted that the finest generals are those that win wars without ever having to fight. Those generals so maneouver their forces and utilize intelligence that their enemies come to realize they have been checkmated and concede defeat without a fight. This blends happily with Mao’s doctrine that an apparently second-rate military force can win wars by the skilful use of its limited strength against its enemy’s weak points.
That is exactly what is happening here. Japan, the world’s third largest and second most sophisticated economy, and no mean military power, is now firmly in Beijing’s sights. After a week of meetings with Japanese officials in various ministries, academics and other followers of public life, my firm impression is of a government and country transfixed by a mood of acute anxiety. That anxiety comes not only from trying to find an effective way to counter China’s offensive without precipitating a war, but also from uncertainty about the reliability of Japan’s alliance with the U.S., especially on the watch of President Barack Obama.
Not least of the problems confronting Japan, and a growing number of American military analysts who are having second thoughts about their country’s traditional romantic vision of benign China, is Beijing’s skill at camouflage. For close to 40 years the Beijing regime has deceived, hidden and lied about its intentions while slowly and methodically preparing the ground to become a superpower.
The central element in that rise is China’s emergence as a naval power. After more than a quarter of a century of construction of modern warships, China now has a navy comprising at least 26 destroyers, 52 frigates, 56 attack submarines, several intercontinental ballistic missile submarines, and one aircraft carrier with at least another two in production. There is also a fleet of several hundred small coastal patrol boats, which, like all the main surface warships, submarines and shore batteries, are equipped with modern missiles designed to counter sea and air threats. Western analysts quibble about how effective this fleet would be in a straight fight against the United States or even Japanese navies. But the whole Chinese strategy is to avoid a straight fight. Even the most bullish American strategists admit that Beijing has designed a force whose missiles and submarines in particular mean that U.S. naval battle groups cannot rush to the aid of allies such as Japan and Taiwan without risking heavy losses. The reality is that after 40 years of intense work, China has constructed a navy which can deny U.S. warships access to much of the western Pacific, especially China’s offshore island chains of the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the Philippines and the South China Sea.
The early prod for China to become an expansionist power was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East produced reports on suspected oil and gas reserves in the region. The reports identified Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as probably covering substantial submarine oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s realization that in order to achieve its ambitions it had to become a naval power capable of dominating the seas around its coast and beyond came in 1974. In January that year China’s navy clashed with Vietnamese warships over control of the Paracel Islands in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. China prevailed, but the skirmishes revealed major shortcomings in the navy’s ability to operate, even at relatively short distances from the mainland coast. This led to the re-examination of China’s established defensive naval policy by Admiral Liu Huaqing. Liu set out the doctrine that in order to protect not only its national sovereignty, but also its growing international commercial interests, China must develop a navy capable of taking the offensive and enforcing the country’s will beyond the horizon. The Communist Party’s central Military Commission adopted Liu’s blueprint in 1985, a plan that at first envisaged China’s navy being able to operate in the “near seas.” These are the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the seas around the island nation of Taiwan, which China claims to own. In the following years, China began establishing a presence on islands and islets in the South China Sea’s Spratly chain, also claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. But at this stage China did not confront Japan, especially not in the Miyako Strait between Japan’s Sekaku Islands and its Ryukyu chain, which gives Chinese warships the most direct access to the western Pacific.
That changed with the coming into force in 1992 of the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. This set territorial waters as 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from the shoreline. But, most significantly, it established an exclusive economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) within which the coastal national has sole rights to exploit natural resources.
It is from this time that China began aggressively asserting its claims to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea, right down to Indonesia’s territorial waters more than 1,200 kilometers from the nearest undisputed Chinese land fall on Hainan Island, and to Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
China has taken full advantage of the last decade-and-a-half, when U.S. attention has been focussed on the Middle East and Afghanistan, to advance its claims and presence off shore. But Beijing’s aggression has been tailored with care so that it never presents a clear target nor directly confronts U.S. interests that would demand a response from Washington. For example, 20 years ago Beijing declared that the Spratly and Paracel islands were Chinese municipalities and part of Hainan Island prefecture. The international response was to snigger at what looked like a piece of comic opera. The laughter was not as loud in 2012 when a physical “administration” was established on Woody Island in the Spratlys, complete with councillors, officials and a police force. Establishment of an administration is the major step in proving sovereignty and China is now doing that. In addition, in recent months it has started massive dredging operations to expand some of the Spratly islands so they can accommodate military bases and air strips. China’s claim to the South China Sea is nonsense, but in clear sight and by militarily confronting the Philippines and Vietnam, whose interests no-one, especially the U.S., has been prepared to defend, Beijing is now well on the way to establishing sovereignty.
China’s claim to the five Senkaku Islands is equally fanciful and without any historic or legal merit. But by repeated incursions in the island’s waters by Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels, Beijing has managed to create the impression, especially in the U.S., that there is a genuine territorial dispute. While Japan has responded to the incursions by deploying its own Coast Guards and air force, it has been hesitant in confronting China’s political campaign. Part of this seems to stem from Japan’s still unresolved relationship with its military. The constitution imposed on Japan after the Second World War included a pacifist clause and narrowly defined circumstances of self-defence when force could be used. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government are attempting to redefine these constitutional limitations so that Japan can operate as a “normal country,” in defence of its own sovereignty and interests, both alone and in alliance with allies. But Japan’s militarist past remains a highly sensitive matter and China has proved a master at playing on these sensitivities, not only in Japan, but also among other Asian countries that were victims of Japanese militarism in the first half of the last century.
Prime among these is South Korea, where animosity towards Japan, who was the colonial occupier from 1895 to 1945, remains high even though the Seoul government has long been in security alliance with the U.S. and Japan. But there are chinks in that relationship and Beijing has deftly worked a pry bar into the gap. However, it should be said immediately that both Japanese and other senior military officers I have spoken to say the political difficulties have not yet affected the security relationships. They say that the Japanese and South Korean militaries continue to work well together and there are no hints of the animosities affecting the political stage.
On that stage, one new reality is that China is now South Korea’s largest trading partner. Following on from that, political relations between Seoul and Beijing have warmed, giving the South Korean government the hope that when reunification with North Korea becomes a real prospect, China will be a help and not a hindrance.
Another opening for Beijing is the anti-Japanese stance taken by South Korean President Park Geun-hye. What is propelling her is a bit of a mystery. But there is some speculation that as the daughter of South Korea’s last military dictator, Park Chung-hee, she feels the political need to assert her nationalist credentials and vilifying the old colonial master is the easy way to do it.
This coldness towards Tokyo has manifested itself in the resurgence of the “comfort women” issue. Tokyo thought it had overcome this several years ago by offering and paying compensation to women who were recruited or conscripted into Japanese regimental brothels in the Second World War. But the public outcry in South Korea that Japan has not been sincere or sufficiently self-abasing in it apologies to the comfort women is again strident. So much so, that South Korea’s well organized and substantial political lobby groups in the U.S. are trying to get withdrawn an invitation for Japanese Prime Minister Abe to address Congress when he visits Washington later this month.
That is unlikely to happen, but if it does it will be a large dollop of icing on China’s already rich and tasty cake. After all, without having to fire a shot, China has developed a navy which has overcome the restraint of the “first island chain.” The Chinese navy and its submarines in particular now use the Miyako Strait at will, and are able to shadow Japanese and U.S. warships off Okinawa and Guam. This means that the waters of the “first island chain” can no longer be entered by American warships without careful consideration of the consequences and even the western Pacific contains serious hidden dangers for Washington’s battle groups.
Even though it has no substantial legal claim, China has accomplished in the South China Sea one of the most substantial land grabs in modern history, beside which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s enveloping of the Crimea is petty pilfering. No one will now get China out of the Spratly Islands without a war.
In the Far East, China has deftly played on Japan’s hesitancy about its own past and future. Beijing has been helped by uncertainties about President Obama’s – indeed, institutional Washington’s willingness – to back his Asian allies with military might, despite his much-ballyhooed “pivot” of American military and diplomatic focus to Asia. At the same time, Beijing has encouraged the already deep-seated animosity towards Japan in South Korea to further unbalance the three-cornered alliance with Washington.
It is already evident that the next arena in China’s quest for regional domination will be the 10 countries of Southeast Asia. Despite history, Japan is generally seen in Southeast Asia as a more benign and dependable partner than Beijing. But China is very adept at using its economic muscle. It may well be that in coming months and years we are going to see a patronage battle between China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Japan-led, well-established Asian Development Bank. If it’s only that, it will be a blessing.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015
Selected archived columns about China:
Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters, by Jonathan Manthorpe
China manufactures islands to back its sovereignty claims, by Jonathan Manthorpe
China accepts tribute from its vassal, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, by Jonathan Manthorpe
China’s Xi launches his own Cultural Revolution, by Jonathan Manthorpe
Beijing reneges on Hong Kong freedom guarantee, by Jonathan Manthorpe
Japan deals itself in to the Asian poker game, by Jonathan Manthorpe
Beijing attempts to provoke conflict with Vietnam over maritime claims, by Jonathan Manthorpe
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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