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China, Russia, North Korea testing Japan's composure

The 'alliance' appears to also want to make the US hesitate

North Korea launches a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile that is thought to be able to reach the U.S. mainland, on July 4. (Korean Central News Agency/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- North Korea's enhanced ballistic missile capabilities have rocked the foundations of the Japan-U.S. alliance. They have also put Japan in a distressing situation -- and emboldened China and Russia to bring Japan even more discomfort.

On July 2, the Tianlangxing, an intelligence-gathering ship of the People's Liberation Army Navy, transited through the Tsugaru Strait, between the Japanese main islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, to the Pacific Ocean. It was the third time that a Chinese warship has entered Japanese territorial waters. A Han-class nuclear submarine did so in November 2004, around Okinawa Prefecture, and an intelligence vessel followed in June 2016, off Kuchinoerabu Island, Kagoshima Prefecture.

There was a space of 12 years between the first and the second intrusions, but the latest incident comes about a year after the preceding one. Moreover, the Tianlangxing spent a leisurely one and a half hours sailing through Japanese waters.

In February 2016, when North Korea test-launched a ballistic missile, a Chinese military intelligence vessel also sailed into the Pacific via the Tsugaru Strait, then moved back and forth off the coast of the Boso Peninsula, Chiba Prefecture, which wraps around Tokyo Bay. As it did, it gathered radio signals from Japan's Self Defense Forces and U.S. forces.

This time, two days after a Chinese intelligence vessel intruded into the strait, on July 4, North Korea launched a new ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, which the U.S. Department of Defense later confirmed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. China's navy may have sent the ship to the Pacific with prior knowledge of Pyongyang's launch plans.

The following day, July 6, Russia unilaterally announced it had designated the Southern Kurils, islands it controls but Japan claims as the Northern Territories, as a special economic zone. Japan and Russia last year agreed to start negotiations to conduct joint economic activities on the disputed islands.

Yet Russia moved ahead on its own. Russia has also strengthened its military bases on two of the islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu, signaling that it has no intention of returning the territories to Japan.

A Chinese government ship navigates around the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea. (Courtesy of the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters.

A more shocking event came on July 7. Marines wearing camouflage fatigues aboard a North Korean naval vessel pointed what appeared to be submachine guns toward a Japanese Fisheries Agency ship in the middle of the Sea of Japan, above the Yamato Ridge. 

It seems that the incident occurred near the boundary of Japan's exclusive economic zone, and that the Fisheries Agency was keeping watch on illegal fishing by North Korean and Chinese boats (the number of instances of illegal fishing has grown in the area). It is said that North Korea is selling rights to fish in its coastal waters to Chinese fishing boats to earn foreign currency. The North Korean warship may have been "protecting" Chinese fishing boats operating illegally in Japan's EEZ.

This was North Korea's first gun threat against a Japanese ship since December 2001, when a ship masquerading as a fishing vessel got into a gun battle with a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat in waters southwest of Kyushu, Japan's southernmost main island. The suspicious ship was finally blown up by its crew and sank.

North Korea was, without doubt, emboldened to take a tough stance by its successful ICBM launch. A research group at Johns Hopkins University of the U.S. estimates that the missile had a maximum range of 8,000km. Furthermore, the researchers think North Korea will be able to target a U.S. population center in about two years.

When North Korea has ICBMs that can hit the U.S. mainland, it could drive a wedge into the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Today, were North Korea to show an intention to attack Japan with some of its many intermediate-range ballistic missiles, U.S. forces could deter it by showing off their retaliatory capabilities. However, when Pyongyang is able to threaten the U.S. mainland with ICBMs, American forces might hesitate to be a deterrence.

In fact, Japan had faced the similar "decoupling" of U.S.-Japan relations between the late 1970s and mid-1980s when the Soviet forces deployed SS20 Intermediate ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe and Far East. Fortunately, a heightened sense of caution among western nations had led to the conclusion of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which promised to abolish SS20. Japan escaped the crisis almost by taking advantage of the western situation.

Now North Korea is about to bring about almost the same situation but this time Japan will have no fellows equivalent of the western camp in the previous case. 

At any rate, the confluence of circumstances appears to indicate that a kind of alliance has formed, with China, Russia and North Korea pecking away at Japan-U.S. nerves.

Russia supports North Korea's missile development both technologically and materially. Pyongyang sends construction and other workers to various countries to earn foreign currency. Despite economic sanctions on the country, these workers have been accepted by Russia and China.

The Japan Coast Guard has recently stepped up surveillance near the Yamatotai ridge presumably in response to the July 7 incident.  If, however, North Korean naval vessels keep a strong stance, there could arise a gun battle like the 2001 incident in the waters off Kyushu.  And if North Korea continues to encourage illegal fishing in Japan's EEZ, the coast guard will have to conduct surveillance simultaneously around the Senkaku Islands and in the Sea of Japan.  If this result in softened surveillance around Senkaku, it will be convenient for China.

What has been happening on the Korean Peninsula, in the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Northern Territories is interconnected. And while most Japanese do not perceive it, their country has not been this tense since the end of World War II.

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