JASDF F-2 fighter at Naha Air Base, Okinawa. U.S. Department of Defense photo.

A JSW pal passes along a translation of an article from October’s issue of Sekai No Kansen (Ships of the World) “Japan’s Strategy Against Senkaku Islands Dispute.”

By Hidemichi Katsumata

– Rampancy of Chinese military vessels

JMSDF Sasebo base is located in Sasebo City, Nagasaki Prefecture — merely 800 km from Tsingtao (Qingdao) where the Chinese North Sea Fleet’s (NSF) concentrates its activities, and only 720 km from the East Sea Fleet’s (ESF) activity zone.  This area is in the center of natural energy resources, and the frontline of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s  (PLAN) activities surrounding Japanese territorial waters.

JMSDF currently homeports three AEGIS destroyers, 16 escort destroyers, two refuel (oiler) ships, three minesweepers, and two missile craft in Sasebo.  A total of 23 vessels are stationed there — a total of 97,700 tons.  A third of the escort ships, and half of the AEGIS ships, owned by JMSDF, are located in Sasebo.

However, JMSDF is now facing the biggest change in history.

On May 1, a JMSDF P-3C assigned to Atsugi base identified three PLAN vessels navigating from the west of Kagoshima/Yakushima, and transiting eastward towards Oosumi strait, the southern tip of Kyushu, and into the western Pacific Ocean.  JMSDF dispatched three escort ships from Sasebo to track two Jiangkai II-class Frigates and a Dongdiao-class surveillance ship with three larger radars onboard.

However, six days later, another JMSDF P-3C based out of Okinawa spotted five PLAN vessels, to include two Luyang I-class guided missile destroyers, located 650 km southwest of Okinawa, and heading eastward.  The ships were from the South Sea Fleet, and with the imminent possibility of the ships approaching southwest islands of Okinawa, JMSDF decided to track them with the escort ships.

Two PLAN Fleets advancing into the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) from the East China Sea (ECS) — this was the first time that the PLAN Navy advanced out from northern and southern territorial waters, almost simultaneously.  The three vessels that navigated through Oosumi strait also passed through and area south of Shikoku Island, then the southern part of Hachijo-Jima, Tokyo, and circled the second-island-chain in a clockwise motion — followed by UAV flight training in the vicinity of Okinotori Shima.  Meanwhile, the five guided missile destroyers, with an LSD in the center portraying as an aircraft carrier, navigated in formation through southern islands of Okinawa to Okinotori Shima.

Both fleets completed their training around the 20th of May, and returned to their respective bases.

JMSDF resumed routine training after completing the tracking missions, however, on 13 June, China’s Luzhou-class guided missile destroyer appeared, along with a refueling ship, from around Yakushima and headed towards Oosumi strait.  As soon as the vessels crossed the strait, they headed south and conducted helo training north of Okinotori Shima for ten days.  They later relocated to the south of Okinotori Shima to conduct replenishment-at-sea training.  JMSDF dispatched an escort ship (AMAGIRI) and P-3C’s to monitor and track PLAN’s activities, but basically, the ships based out of Sasebo were tossed about by the activities of China’s three Fleets.

A senior leader of JMSDF complained, “China appears every time we mobilize for training, as if they were waiting for that moment.  We have no choice but to track them and monitor their moves every time we identify them, so we end up having to cut our training short.”

Another senior leader also shared, “We didn’t realize so much of our time would be taken by tracking PLAN activities … they may be strategically doing this to prevent us from training…”

Securing training time is critical to JMSDF in order to maintain a level of proficiency — so in July, JMSDF launched a specialized plan to place three “special mission” ships based out of Sasebo on “monitor and track” duties for two weeks out of the month to keep an eye on the PLAN activities.  All the escort ships rotate to take on the two week mission along with P-3C support.  However, senior JMSDF officials are aware that three ships may not be enough, depending on China’s scope of activities or scale of the PLAN Fleets in motion.

So, while JMSDF had its hands full in monitoring PLAN’s activities, the situation surrounding the Senkaku islands had also become tense, rapidly.

– China’s scenario to invade the Senkaku islands

Three fishing surveillance vessels, belonging to the Fishery Bureau of China’s State Council, violated Japan’s water territory and came in to the vicinity of the Senkaku islands on the 11th and 12th of July.  A Japan Coast Guard patrol ship demanded the Chinese ship to leave Japan territorial waters when the Chinese vessel responded, “Do not interfere!  Get out of Chinese territorial waters!”  Furthermore, the People’s Daily, newspaper of the Communist Party of China warned that the issue could escalate out of control depending on Japan’s response.

It is believed that the act of violation was in response to PM Noda’s policy to nationalize the Senkaku islands, but the National Oceanographic Office under China’s State Council announced in March of this year that it will conduct surveillance missions in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands — and true to its words, China’s Oceanographic Survey ships have violated Japan territorial waters numerous times since then.

There is no evidence that the Chinese activities in ECS and WESTPAC have any direct relation to the activities surrounding the Senkaku Islands, however, JMSDF senior officials are stating they are considering all possible scenarios.

One of JMSDF’s scenarios is one that China conducts a large scale exercise in ECS and the WESTPAC, which will draw JMSDF’s attention away from the Senkakus, while China sends multiple fishing vessels, with militias on board, to land on the Senkaku islands.  JMSDF is taking such a guerrilla-like scenario into consideration while planning countermeasures.  The scenario goes like this: 500-800 Chinese fishing vessels mass together ff the coast of Zhejiang, along with attack helos and other ammunition providing backup support, and this “fleet” launches a large scale invasion of the Senkaku islands, ignoring the warnings of JCG patrol ships, and lands on the islands.  After landing, the scenario moves to the Chinese building bridgeheads with the help of their Navy and Army.

This scenario is actually an expanded version of what occurred in April of 1978, when over 140 Chinese fishing vessels came into the vicinity of the Senkaku islands.  In fact, a similar situation already occurred just two years ago.  270 Chinese vessels were operating in the area close to Japan waters, and up to 70 vessels a day were confirmed to have violated Japan territory.  In the midst of these related operations, China’s fishing trawler collided with JCG’s patrol ship and fled the scene.  It is safe to say that China is well on their way to invading the Senkaku islands.

Furthermore, China has been taking every opportunity to state their position on the Senkaku issues.  For example, at a regular conference held between retired JSDF generals/admirals and executives of the PLA this June, China clearly stated, “Territorial issues are our core interest.  The Senkaku islands are Chinese territory, and our core interest.  We will not condone illegal occupancy on our territory.  However, there is no reason to resort to armed forces to find resolution in territorial and sovereignty issues.”

Identifying the Senkaku islands as China’s “core interest” is one of the key takeaways — but so is the following statement: “…there is no reason to resort to armed forces to find resolution in territorial and sovereignty issues.”  Therefore, China could utilize militias on fishing vessels to invade the Senkaku islands — i.e., to give them the excuse that the actions taken are not “military forces”, because the PLAN is not involved.

Recently, China has been threatening the Indonesian and Vietnam navies with small firearms in South China Sea (SCS) over territorial issues.  It is hard to believe that China’s demands will be embraced by the international community.  However, if the scenario JMSDF has been thinking of is executed by China, JMSDF will have to respond with force.  In such case, China will claim that Japan escalated the situation to a military issue first, and will accuse Japan for forgetting their history of invasions, which will be their cry to the international community.  In a world where information travels via internet in matter of minutes, Japan cannot take the risk of turning the global community against them.

– Demonstrating the will to defend the Senkaku islands

In order prevent such an escalation, Japan must consider utilizing law enforcement agencies such as the JCG, prefectural police forces, the riot police forces, Police Special Assault Teams (SATs), and other special forces, to respond to such a situation and keep JMSDF away from the scene as much as possible — and train for such scenario.

Disappointingly, although Senkaku Islands fall under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefectural Police (OPP), training with OPP and Japan riot police in the Kyushu district is not occurring, and there is no effort to patrol the islands in a joint effort.

Specifically, the riot police and Special Forces should land on Senkaku islands via helo and boats, while JCG dispatches patrol ships and aircraft as soon as the first sign of a Chinese invasion is detected.  The GOJ must officially order JSDF to conduct maritime patrols in support of the police and the JCG, and as soon as there are signs of forceful violation of security lines by the Chinese, JMSDF must shift into defense (kinetic) mode to protect the Senkaku islands.  In order to train for this scenario, it is critical to gain the understanding and support from Ambassadors of various nations and Defense Attachés of the sensitivities and defense strategies surrounding the Senkaku islands.

Of course, in order to prevent possible invasion of China, Japan must strengthen its line of control of the Senkaku Islands.  Currently, the only “defense” demonstrated by Japan is for four JCG patrol ships to routinely patrol in the vicinity of the islands, and for JMSDF P-3C’s to conduct surveillance missions once a day.

In July, three Chinese fishing vessels repeatedly violated Japan territorial waters, and it was clear to JCG that maintaining security with merely four patrol boats is challenging and impossible to demonstrate line of control.  In order to demonstrate sovereignty over the Senkaku islands, JCG must store fuel, food supplies, and other equipment necessary to conduct operations on a 24-hour basis on the largest island of the Senkaku islands — Uotsuri-Jima.  Over the years, GOJ left the islands uninhabited to prevent provoking China, but it is time to change the current situation as soon as possible.

Furthermore, the government must expedite the process of strengthening the two critical organizations in this situation — JMSDF and JCG.  JMSDF and JCG worked closely together shortly after the 3-11 disaster to conduct Search-and-Rescue (SAR) missions.  While all JMSDF ships replenished fuel from refueling ships during these missions, JCG ships were forced to return back to the port to replenish fuel.  The fundamental reason for that is the difference in fuel used — while JMSDF uses light diesel, JCG requires heavy oil.  Also, there’s a difference in the fuel filler tube opening, making it impossible for JMSDF to provide fuel to JCG ships.  These fundamental differences could be detrimental to the productivity of SAR missions.  The ability to demonstrate line of control would significantly increase if the issue in conducting replenishment-at-sea is resolved.

For example, if JMSDF provides a refueling ship and an escort ship to support the four JCG patrol ships once a week in the vicinity of the Senkaku islands, Japan’s “presence” will be significantly more visible.  It is easy for JCG to change the fuel to diesel, as well as changing the fuel filler tube opening to meet the JMSDF specifications.  Of course, the new JCG ships should be compatible with JMSDF ships for that reason.  It is critical for Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) to remove any communication barriers so they are in sync with each other.

Demonstrating Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, such as building structures on the islands and establishing surveillance and patrols, must be expedited — but at the same time, GOJ must justify its argument to the international community and gain their support and recognition that the Senkaku islands belong to Japan.

GOJ passed a resolution to place the Senkaku islands under the administration of Okinawa during the January 1895 Cabinet Council — and immediately thereafter launched development projects to install a concrete territorial claim and other various development projects.  Immigrants were sent to the Senkaku islands every year, thereafter, to collect albatross feathers and to manufacture dried bonito flakes.

China and Taiwan began claiming sovereignty of the Senkaku islands in the 1970′s after experts discovered oil reserves might be found under the sea near the islands.  China claimed that Japan invaded the Senkaku islands during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) — however, GOJ began researching if the Senkaku islands were “terra nullius” in 1885, by ordering a steamboat from Okinawa to conduct site surveys.

Back then, the Qing Dynasty had supreme military power with powerful ships.  In 1886, four Qing Fleet ships appeared in the coast of Nagasaki and landed on Japan soil.  Sailors of the Qing Fleet assaulted and stole from the Japanese people, resulting to injuries and deaths.  This incident — known as the “Nagasaki Incident” — proves how powerful China was; so, how could Japan “invade” the Senkaku islands?  Japan must use historical documents to prove how China and Taiwan’s claims are unsubstantiated, while gaining the international support that Japan has territorial rights.  Japan must not forget that China is attempting to disprove Japan’s claims to territorial rights.

Historically speaking, when a “status quo” nation is more powerful than a “change seeking” nation, the situation usually does not escalate to brute force.  However, if the level of power is reversed, the situation can quickly turn to forceful resolution.  The current military power between Japan and China is equal, but it is also apparent that China is rapidly expanding its power.  With China’s clear position on the Senkaku islands being their “core interest”, it is unlikely that an amicable resolution is attainable.

The Chinese Communist Party cannot risk to be viewed as weak-kneed by its 1.3 billion population.  However, China must also keep in mind that an armed conflict with Japan will lead to the involvement of the U.S. military, which will guarantee China’s defeat.  Therefore, China must be smart in its strategy — i.e., to maintain the conflict with Japan within the realm where it does not involve the U.S.

If Japan should face conflict with China, will the U.S. really support Japan?  Although Secretary Clinton clearly stated that the U.S. views the Senkaku islands to fall under article 5 of the U.S.- Japan Security Treaty, there has not been any clarification as to whether or not the U.S. endorses Japan’s claims to territorial rights.  In May this year, RADM (ret) Michael McDevitt, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies for the CNA Corporations stated at a symposium hosted by the Embassy in Tokyo, “Currently, Japan has administrative control of the Senkaku islands.  Secretary Clinton’s statement indicates that the Security Treaty will cover the Senkaku islands, as long as Japan has administrative control.  However, if Japan loses administrative control, the treaty would not cover the Senkaku islands.”

Japan must come to realization that it must demonstrate its willingness and intention to prevent forceful landing at all costs, or the U.S. will not execute collaborative defense in accordance to the treaty.  JCG and remote island police must strengthen their security postures, with the support of JSDF, to validate the line of (territorial) control, while GOJ convinces the international community that Japan has territorial rights to the Senkaku islands.

Furthermore, Japan must align its military power with the U.S. to fully defend its territorial waters.  Should Japan fail to take such actions, control over the Senkaku islands will definitely be lost.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch