By air and sea: China’s two-pronged strategy to grind Japan down over disputed islands

Kristin Huang
·4-min read

The idea is to wear down Japanese resistance over time – and so far it seems to be having an effect.

In the last few years, China has been ramping up its civilian and military presence in the airspace and waters around a rocky, uninhabited group of islands in the East China Sea.

The islands, called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, are under Japanese administration but claimed by both countries.

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As part of its strategy, China has sent military planes on hundreds of sorties in the area, forcing the Japan Self-Defence Forces to scramble its fighter jets from dawn till dusk.

Observers say the tactic is draining Japanese personnel and equipment but also comes at a big risk for China.

The Japan Coast Guard started reporting the number of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkakus in 2008. For a while there were only a few cases – no more than 10 a year. But in September 2012, the Japanese government nationalised the islands and by the end of the year China had sent 428 coastguard vessels into the contiguous waters of the islands, a zone between 12 and 24 nautical miles from the Senkakus.

From 2013 and 2018, an average of 720 Chinese coastguard vessels ventured into the waters. And in 2020, 1,157 of the Chinese ships went in the contiguous zone of the islands, up more than 5 per cent from last year and almost triple the number from 2012.

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Tension has also been on the rise in the sky.

The Japanese Ministry of Defence said that in the year to March, Japanese fighter jets responded to 638 incursions by Chinese warplanes, nearly all of which were near the islands.

The total was up from 500 the previous year and was the second highest annual number since 1958.

Citing government sources, Kyodo News reported in July that the frequent Chinese sorties forced the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to fly above the East China Sea from sunrise to sunset every day.

The two countries have since agreed to restart talks on the islands but there is a great deal of mistrust to overcome.

Japanese State Minister of Defence Yasuhide Nakayama voiced those concerns in early December when he said China’s growing maritime activities in the waters surrounding Japan were a threat.

He also called Beijing’s movements an attempt to “unilaterally” change the status quo in the East China Sea.

“Every single day, the Chinese ships, the coastguard vessels try to enter our territorial waters,” Nakayama said.

Amid this activity, the United States, Japan, and France plan to hold their first joint military drills on one of Japan’s uninhabited outlying islands in May.

The exercise is nominally to practise disaster relief efforts but could also form the basis for a coordinated defence against attack, according to Japan’s Sankei newspaper.

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Derek Grossman, a security specialist from the Rand Corporation, said pressure from Chinese warplanes has severely strained the Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s ability to sustain normal operations.

“[It] has suffered in terms of pilot fatigue as well as the cost of maintenance on aircraft … [and] the routinisation of intercepts makes it more difficult for the [air self-defence force] to determine whether this time is different. That is precisely the uncertain mindset Beijing wants potential adversaries to have prior to actual armed conflict,” Grossman said.

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Timothy Heath, also from the Rand Corporation, said China’s strategy for the Senkakus depended on “wearing down” Japan’s resistance over time so that eventually Tokyo acquiesced without fighting.

And a number of factors were in China’s favour.

“First, the huge amount of resources available to the Chinese coastguard and People’s Liberation Army Navy provides an important material advantage. Japan cannot match China plane for plane and ship for ship. Tokyo will become exhausted if it tries to do so,” Heath said.

“Also, China is highly motivated to sustain these intrusions, due to the value for its security and the political benefits for Chinese audiences that the intrusions offer of humiliating Japan.”

However, Heath cautioned that China’s strategy could fail if Japan and the US responded to the increased pressure by stepping up cooperation near the Senkakus, raising the risk of a crisis or clash that nobody wanted.

“The damage to China-Japan relations could turn Tokyo into an enemy and make China’s security situation less stable overall,” he said.

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