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.
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?
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.