June 14, 2016 2:30 pm JST
Commentary

James Stavridis -- Expect more air and sea confrontation with China

China has sailed into dangerous waters, both literally and metaphorically by ordering for the first time an advanced frigate to pass through the seas off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on June 9.

The Jiankai I class warship crossed the "contiguous zone" -- an area within 24 nautical miles of the uninhabited Senkaku rocks, though outside the 12-mile limit considered territorial waters under the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty. The small group of islands, also known as the Diaoyu by the Chinese, have been administered by Japan or the United States since 1895 but claimed by China since the 1970s, so Beijing's incursion into the zone is an extremely provocative act in Japanese eyes.

Japanese diplomats reacted vigorously, with the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga telling reporters the government was "deeply concerned" by the Chinese move, adding: "We, in coordination with the United States and the international community, strongly demand that China not repeat such behaviors that unilaterally heighten tensions." The Japanese Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador at 2 am in the morning to protest and told him the ship must depart the zone immediately.

So what does China intend with what appears to be a very aggressive step, and where does the dispute go from here?

Most observers believe China has three objectives. The first and most obvious is to undermine the Japanese territorial claims and establish under international law the "legitimacy" of China's claims. While sailing in another nation's contiguous zone is permitted under the Law of the Sea Treaty in certain circumstances, it is clearly intended as a signal to the Japanese that China does not respect their authority in these waters. Secondly, China (like Japan) covets the oil and gas located in the region. As in the South China Sea, China seeks to legitimize its access to natural resources.

And thirdly, there is certainly a domestic component for China to such aggressive activities vis-a-vis the Japanese. It is politically expedient for President Xi Jinping to rattle the old ghosts of World War II in "Asia's Cauldron", as leading geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan called the South China Sea in his recent book. Aggressive behavior plays well with the increasingly nationalistic Chinese population. A fourth possible explanation for the Chinese patrols is that they are at least partially in response to similar U.S. activities in and around the Chinese-claimed artificial islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

As always, the Chinese are playing a long game. The essence of their geostrategic plan for the 21st century is to dominate East Asia, and this will require control of the sea approaches to their landmass. This means continuing to press their claims to both the South and East China Seas. Certainly a key part of their broad strategy is to try and separate the United States, still the strongest military power in the region, from its many allies. They regard the U.S. presence as destabilizing, and also object to the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade pact among the major countries of the region but excluding China.

Overall, the United States will respond to this episode by reassuring Japan through the continued basing of U.S. military forces on their territory, constantly operating and exercising with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, and seeking to broaden the security base in the region through further military-to-military contact with the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. The U.S. will also aggressively continue its own freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, despite China's vigorous objections.

A fascinating counter-strategy to China's behavior is the emerging possibility of a stronger US -Japan-India alignment. While a formal defense treaty with India is unlikely, look for increased exercises between the three nations, especially in the maritime realm. Such exercises have been increasing in frequency, and there is another scheduled in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands this week. This will further ratchet up tension and increase the possibility of a more dramatic confrontation.

Neither China nor the United States is seeking a new Cold War in East Asia. But this latest move by China is indicative of its resolve to face what it sees as a growing informal U.S. alliance structure in the region. There will certainly be further confrontations on and under the sea, and in the air as well. Both nations need to focus on diplomatic and political interaction and direct dialog to resolve their differences. A good place to start would be a set of agreed protocols to handle the possibility of confrontation between Chinese warships and aircraft on the one hand and the forces of the United States and Japan on the other. This kind of guidance is necessary down to the operational level in the respective militaries -- or the risks of destabilizing the Pacific Rim following a mishandled military mission will continue to rise.

Admiral Stavridis was 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, and is Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. He spent over half of his long military career in the Pacific.

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