November 21st, 2012
11:24 AM ET

Will China force Japan’s hand over islands?

By Michael Mazza, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.

Since the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the Senkaku islands in September, China has launched a concerted effort to alter the status quo in the East China Sea. First, in anticipation of the purchase, Beijing promulgated a new law to bolster what it believes are the legal underpinnings of its claims to the islands. More dangerously, it has carried out more frequent patrols in waters around the islands, regularly sending government ships into Japan’s claimed exclusive economic zone, and sometimes into Japanese-claimed territorial waters.

Beijing’s goal appears to be to alter the fact of Japan’s effective control of the island grouping and to force Tokyo to acknowledge that a sovereignty dispute indeed exists, which Tokyo has thus far refused to do. In some respects, China is succeeding. According to the Japanese Coast Guard, November 19 marked the 30th consecutive day on which Chinese maritime surveillance vessels entered Japanese-claimed waters, putting in doubt the idea that the Senkakus are under Japan’s firm control.

China has even maintained that its ships have chased Japanese vessels from the contested waters, a claim that Tokyo denies. Still, as Beijing concentrates resources in the East China Sea, such expulsions will become more likely, as Japanese vessels may find themselves occasionally outnumbered. That is a state of affairs that Tokyo will find difficult to accept, and one which may finally force Japan to respond to Chinese escalation with escalatory moves of its own.

More from CNN: Behind the island dispute

Japan, for example, could adopt China’s strategy of altering facts on the ground. In particular, Japan might move to establish a small military presence on one or more of the uninhabited islands in an effort to reassert its sovereignty. These deployments could consist initially of Coast Guard security forces, which would be less inflammatory than stationing soldiers on the Senkakus.

This would nonetheless be a provocative move, but perhaps a shrewd one as well. It would change the game in the East China Sea and complicate China’s options. Specifically, China would be faced with three key decisions. First, should it attempt to forcibly prevent the deployment? Second, if the deployment succeeds, should China attempt to blockade the islands and prevent resupply? Third, should China attempt to dislodge Japanese forces from the islands?

More from GPS: Could U.S. get sucked into conflict?

One would hope that Beijing hesitates before answering “yes” to any of these questions. Doing so would require it to deploy conventional military forces – rather than maritime surveillance ships – to the disputed waters. This is a red line that neither party has presumably wanted to cross.

In establishing a presence on the islands themselves, Tokyo would put the onus on Beijing to escalate the dispute to a military stand-off, rather than one involving lightly armed patrol vessels. Japan would force China to take on the role of aggressor even as Tokyo engages in some escalation of its own.

This is not a decision that Japan would take lightly. Tokyo has been steadfast in its determination to roll with Beijing’s punches and would be content to continue chasing Chinese patrols out of Japanese claimed waters and arresting the occasional Chinese national making a swim for one of the islands. But it is not clear that simply waiting out the Chinese will be an effective strategy over time. There may come a point when doing what Japan has always done will not be sufficient for maintaining the status quo. When that time comes, Tokyo may not only be forced to accept that the status quo is no longer tenable, but may also perceive an opportunity to change the status quo in its own favor.

China’s goal of altering the current state of affairs around the Senkaku islands is within reach. Ironically, it may be Japan that gains the advantage.

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Topics: Asia • China • Japan

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. shao zie

    Very smart.

    November 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • ScottCA

      This is very foolish of China
      With resentment already growing in regards to their nation
      this will only serve to further stress trade relations and ultimately damage China's reputation

      December 13, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Reply
    • HonoH San Tron






      January 30, 2013 at 8:44 am | Reply
  2. shao zie

    wow, great sensor machine

    November 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • Khush

      you suck

      November 30, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • ScottCA

      Censor Machine you must be talking about the Chinese government and how they sensor all incomming information into China including internet and media broadcasts in China, removing anything they feel would challenge the governments absolute control of the nation..

      December 14, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
    • Quincy

      Totally agree. I cannot post my comments.

      January 15, 2013 at 12:36 am | Reply
  3. thumbsihave2

    Good, neutralizing idea for this set of islands.

    November 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • Khush

      Dude are you on Crack or something? Apparently you are. China should apologize

      November 30, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • ScottCA

      China is neither a Democracy nor a true Communist state, they are on the verge of becomming a Anocracy, and when that happens expect wars, at least internal fighting.
      For now while they are under the rule of one party they are as dangerous as any dictatorship–which have very high rates of inter state war. But when their economic bubble bursts and it will eventually, exppect a call for political change in China. It is at this point that things will likely get violent internally. Purhaps more student protestors being killed on a mass scale. Or just the regular growing pains of a anocracy facing civil strife as it attempts to become a true democracy.

      December 14, 2012 at 12:07 am | Reply
  4. Henry M.

    Truth will prevail.

    November 22, 2012 at 12:41 am | Reply
  5. Henry M.


    November 22, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply
  6. Henry M.

    History has taught us humiliating lessons when we underestimated China.

    November 22, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply
    • ImperiumVita

      It occurs to me that history has also taught China some humiliating lessons when it has underestimated the rest of the world. A century's worth in fact.

      November 22, 2012 at 9:06 am | Reply
      • lin


        December 3, 2012 at 11:01 am |
      • lin


        December 3, 2012 at 11:01 am |
      • ScottCA

        Please the same China that got its Butt kicked by the British on their own.
        now try taaking on All the Allied nations at once. Ja pan and America would stomp the Chinese royally in a fight. And the allies would jump in to help out.

        December 14, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    We, as bystanders of the international community should join forces and urge both China and J apan to have this territorial dispute be reviewed by the International Court of Justice. This is the only fair and reasonable way to resolve the conflict.

    November 22, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • kkk

      Good idea, how about Israel and Palestine?

      December 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  8. Status quo

    The moderator learns from China well. The messages are heavily filtered to support the author's view (:-

    November 22, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
    • ScottCA

      No you just failed to understand how the language filter works to remove aany potential swearing

      December 14, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  9. Status quo

    Chinese leaders will be forced to take one or all 3 options if they are cornered.

    November 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  10. zhuubaajie

    If you are going to censor so heavily, why bother putting up a comments page. Hypocrite on free speech.

    November 22, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  11. zhuubaajie

    11/20/2012 4:36 PM PST
    This UPDATED comment corrects the link below pointing at Open Media Now (regrets for the original link error) and also adds the short, important, next-to-last paragraph…

    Folks, you need to know more about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). See the Salon article here... As also reported by "Lobbyist “advisors” and un-elected trade representatives are working behind closed doors to decide how the Internet will be governed, including how you could get fined for your Internet use, how you could be dragged to court and receive a large fine just for clicking on a link, how service providers would hand over information about your online activities without honoring existing national privacy safeguards, and how online content could be removed by big media conglomerates at will. For more information, visit"

    As this Washington Post story makes clear, the TPP clearly has geo-political roots. But, it also clearly is being used by Internet firms to wrest web control from countries and individuals, and take control for their own proprietary and monetary interest. This flies in the face of the web as a creative place for firms, non-profits, and individuals freely and openly to offer ideas, share learnings, express views, participate in events, and yes, do business, whether big or small, while remaining under the privacy and access protections currently in place under the laws of individual nations.

    The TPP will supplant and replace national privacy and access protections unless the TPP’s web provisions are challenged before December 5, 2012, when its language will be given to governments to approve up or down. And then it will be a done deal treaty overriding and setting aside current law in deference to international law.

    Take another look at the TPP as it continues to coalesce behind doors. Demand transparency and open public voices at the table before this becomes a done deal and the web becomes a corporate place.

    November 22, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  12. lin

    do you hv brain? definitely not

    December 3, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
  13. Far East Observer

    Michael Mazza sounds like a moron in terms of politics, history, military, and he already took side, whereas US government mentioned "no position".

    December 11, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Reply
    • Quincy

      I totally agree.

      January 15, 2013 at 12:29 am | Reply
  14. Far East Observer

    Even US chose to help, it would be insignificant. You forgot that US would have trouble defending Taiwan, as it has been discussed widely. It is impossible for US to defend these tiny islands. That has become reality. Please go to Rand and check out related papers on US vs China in the Far East theater.

    December 11, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  15. Abba

    Can't we all just get alone for Gods sake. We are all people. Humans are such babies.

    December 13, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply

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